By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Allowing open-road tolling on Wisconsin’s interstates is the only plausible way to raise state money to match whatever federal funding could be coming for transportation, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told county officials on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump last month called on Congress to approve a $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure plan that most likely would require states to put up some money to receive the federal funds. Trump’s plan would rely on state and local governments working with private investors to come up with much of the needed cash.
Gov. Scott Walker last week said he would be open to a gas tax increase to access the federal money, but only if the increase were offset by cuts elsewhere. Fitzgerald, though, said on Wednesday that there is not enough support in the Senate to raise either the state’s gas tax increase or vehicle-registration fees.
“The only way that we are going to be able to do this and the only way that makes sense is open road tolling,” Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin would need federal approval to carry out tolling. But Walker last year vetoed a proposed use of $2.5 million for a study into the possibility of tolling in the state. Walker said then that the state could move ahead with tolling without the study.
Fitzgerald said he does not know what Walker thinks of tolling now.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who appeared with Fitzgerald at the Wisconsin Counties Association event, has been a longtime backer of tolling as part of a way to raise money for roads in Wisconsin. Vos said Wednesday that he couldn’t be more supportive of the idea and he was confident Walker could get behind it.
“We can all vote for tolling, it’s a good idea, it’s the future,” Vos said.
Walker was scheduled to speak at the same event later on Wednesday.
Fitzgerald said he expects “chaos” as the Legislature rushes to complete its business over the next several weeks and he would not guarantee that several of Walker’s top priorities would be passed during the final push.
Numerous proposals remain in the mix, including Walker’s plan to increase work requirements for recipients of food stamps and guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can buy health insurance. The Assembly is also moving forward with a bill that, over the objections of various environmental and conservation groups, would allow developers to fill state wetlands without permits and scale back mitigation requirements.
There’s little time for the Legislature to act. The Assembly plans to meet five days in February while the Senate will be in session on Feb. 20 and possibly only one day beyond that.
Vos separately said Republicans are on the “cusp of a potential agreement” on a juvenile-justice overhaul along the lines of what Walker had proposed earlier this year. The plan would have juvenile inmates removed from the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prison complex in Irma, north of Wausau. Fitzgerald said the biggest obstacle to reaching a deal is the question of who would run the new juvenile prisons that Walker’s plan also calls for. The choice will most likely come down to giving the authority to either the state or counties.
Vos said he hoped to announce a deal early next week under which the most serious juvenile offenders would be in one or two prisons and the others would be housed elsewhere in conjunction with the counties.
Neither Vos nor Fitzgerald would say whether Walker’s proposal to give tax breaks to Kimberly-Clark in an effort to save 600 jobs scheduled for elimination would pass. Fitzgerald said he thought Walker was open to compromising on his proposed $100-per child tax rebate. Vos it was too early to tell whether it would pass.
Vos and Fitzgerald agreed that a plan that’s a priority of counties and local governments will not pass this year. That’s a proposal to remove the so-called “dark stores” loophole to force mega-retailers like Menards to pay more in local property taxes. Fitzgerald said the issue is complicated and needs more study before the Legislature acts.