By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Just in case anyone thought solving Wisconsin’s $1 billion transportation budget deficit was going to be as simple as throwing some asphalt over a pothole, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has a reality check: “No Easy Answers.”
That’s the title of a 27-page document Vos distributed to Republican Assembly members in advance of the next legislative session, laying out possible solutions to the funding shortfall. Figuring out what to do about Wisconsin’s crumbling roads, and massive ongoing highway projects in the most populated parts of the state, is expected to be one of the most difficult issues the Legislature faces next year.
The fight is also revealing tensions among Republicans who control state government.
Gov. Scott Walker has vowed not to raise taxes on gasoline or vehicle registration fees to pay for it, unless an equal amount of taxes elsewhere are cut. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he won’t fight Walker on that, saying it makes no sense to approve tax increases that are only going to be vetoed.
In a break from Walker, Vos and Assembly Republican leaders want to keep all options open — including raising the gas tax, increasing vehicle registration fees and instituting toll roads. Assembly Republicans are creating their own transportation plan and will begin holding public hearings on the issue starting Dec. 6, with a meeting in the state Capitol.
Vos has said that a total repeal of the state’s prevailing-laws could be part of a deal Republicans negotiate in return for raising additional money for roads and similar projects. GOP lawmakers passed a budget provision last year that eliminated the wage requirements for locally funded projects but left them in place for state-funded ones. Some have argued that total elimination would let the state stretch tax dollars further.
“Everything should be on the table to fix this problem,” Vos said in a recent meeting with reporters where he discussed the issue. “I prefer not to negotiate by drawing hard lines in the sand like Governor Walker does.”
Delaying projects is expensive and has ramifications for the economy and public safety, Vos said.
“If we care about creating jobs, we have to at least say we have to get this done,” Vos told reporters. His “No Easy Answers” document argued that “Transportation is a bigger concern for job creators looking to locate a business than Right to Work, tax incentives or environmental regulations.”
The state’s roads budget is funded with money generated through the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. With more drivers turning to fuel-efficient vehicles and driving fewer miles, revenue has dropped.
The problem has been known, and ignored, for years. A special commission created by the Legislature that included members of Walker’s administration studied the problem for two years and issued a report in 2013.
It warned then that “continuing the status quo level of investment will result in serious worsening in the condition and safety of state highways, increased urban highway congestion and reduced service levels for public transit.”
The much-heralded recommendations included increasing a variety of Wisconsin’s driving-related taxes and fees, including a 5-cent hike to the gas tax, to pay for $4.8 billion in projects over the next decade. The average vehicle owner would have paid about $120 more a year.
The recommendations went nowhere.
Two years ago Walker’s Department of Transportation asked for a gas tax increase, higher fees on new vehicle purchases and higher fees for drivers of fuel efficient hybrid and electric vehicles. But Walker refused to go along.
Now, many of the same ideas and some new ones are being floated yet again.
— Increasing the gas tax 1 cent, raising an additional $33.4 million a year. Wisconsin’s gas tax is 30.9 cents a gallon. For 20 years, the gas tax was adjusted annually for inflation, but the Legislature stopped that in 2005 and the last increase to the tax was in 2006.
— Raising the $75 vehicle registration fees by $1, which would bring in $4.4 million a year.
— Increasing the $34 driver’s license fees by $1, which would add another $1.1 million.
— Eliminating federal mandates, the prevailing wage, bike paths, roundabouts and fancy waysides along the interstate.
— Instituting toll roads. A study of tolling is underway but no action can be taken without federal approval, and even then it would take years before the state would see any money.
— Being more efficient. An audit of the state Department of Transportation was expected to be released in the coming weeks, although Vos cautioned that savings alone would not come close to generating enough money to solve the problem.
Walker’s plan is much like what he put forward two years ago: cut and borrow. Two years ago Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion, but the Legislature scaled that back to $850 million. Walker wants to borrow $500 million over the next two years.
Walker also wants to save $447 million by delaying work on major projects, including the final phase of rebuilding and expanding the Zoo Interchange and expanding Madison’s Beltline and nearby roads in the southwest part of the city, which includes some of Dane County’s fastest-growing business and residential areas.
The core part of the Zoo Interchange project, the state’s busiest freeway interchange, would remain on track for competition in 2019.
Walker’s plan would devote no money toward a plan to reconstruct Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois, leaving the project in Racine and Kenosha counties half-finished. Work on expanding Interstate 39/90 between Madison and Illinois would remain on pace, as would work on Highway 110/441 in the Fox Valley.
The Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a statewide coalition of road-builders, businesses, labor, citizen groups and local governments, called Walker’s proposal “short-sighted and troubling.”
Many Republicans in the Legislature agree.
When the Legislature returns in a little over a month the focus will shift to if, and how, a compromise can be reached.