With many likely voters anxious about the condition of Wisconsin roads, a group tied to the largest construction union in the state is using a series of election-cycle ads to skewer Gov. Scott Walker over infrastructure spending.
Using the website “scottholes.com,” a group called Safe Transportation Over Politics—STOP for short—is taking a jab at what it deems Walker’s anemic spending on roads. The site features dozens of photos of crumbling concrete and sagging steel on Wisconsin roads and bridges.
But STOP’s campaign doesn’t stop there. Helped by support from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, STOP has taken out billboards on highways, flown banners behind airplanes and spent at least $350,000 with seven radio stations to run ads through September in different parts of the state, according to Federal Communications Commission records.
The push comes as eight Democrats vie for the party’s nomination to run against Walker for governor in November. It also comes as recent polling suggests that the people at STOP are not the only ones frustrated by the condition of in-state roads.
Dissatisfaction is running particularly high in northern and western Wisconsin. In a Marquette University Law School poll whose results were released earlier this month, 66 percent of the respondents living in those parts of the state put the condition of nearby roads down as either “fair” or “poor.”
In recent years, Local 139 has found itself at odds with Walker on a slew of policy matters ranging from his support for a right-to-work law to his elimination last year of the last vestiges of the state’s prevailing-wage laws. When it comes to transportation budgets, one particular source of irritation for top officials at the union has been Walker’s repeated claim that he has spent $3 billion more than his predecessor on roads.
As the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has pointed out, there are at least a couple of flaws with Walker’s number. For one, it ignores the effects of inflation. Second, it takes some borrowed money into account twice, counting it both when it’s borrowed and then when it’s paid off.
If the double-counting is eliminated and the effects of inflation are taken into the equation, Walker can in fact be said to have spent $1.3 billion less than the previous governor, Gov. Jim Doyle, according to the fiscal bureau.
“It is time for the governor to stop making up his own election year facts and instead make real progress toward fixing his broken transportation funding system,” Terry McGowan, Local 139 president, said in a statement. “Scott Walker needs to focus on doing his job and worry less about just keeping his job.”
This is not the first time the union has tried to use campaign spending to influence the makeup of state government. Two years ago, Local 139 had backed various independent groups that had set their sights on wresting control of the state Senate from Republicans.
But the union’s money did little good then. In one of the most-watched races in 2016, state Sen. Dan Feyen, a Republican from Fond du Lac, won despite being the target of heavy spending from the left-leaning groups Prosperity for Everyday People and Wisconsin Prosperity, which had received a $50,000 donation from Local 139.
To be sure, not all Republicans have stood staunchly against at least considering raising the state’s gas tax or vehicle-registration fees. Walker, though, has consistently refused to seriously entertain either option.
The result has been that there is less money set aside for certain priorities. The current budget, which runs through 2019, has $79 million less for state highway rehabilitation program than did the previous budget.
A study published in 2016 by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation found that the number of roads rated poor or worse will double in coming years if more money isn’t set aside for transportation. And that was before the massive factory Foxconn Technology Group is building in Racine County began to divert money once meant for other parts of the state to southeast Wisconsin.
Although the governor is likely thinking his opposition to a gas-tax increase will help him on the ballot, crumbling roads are the not sort of thing most voters love, said Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a group that advocates for more road spending. He said the numbers in Marquette University’s latest poll suggest that concerns about the condition of in-state roads, particular in northern and western Wisconsin, will be a force to reckon with in November.
“I think a lot of people are trying to read into political reasons,” Thompson said. “I think it’s simpler than that. I think they are right. If you look at the numbers, their roads are worse. For voters in the southeastern part of the state, roads are probably a top two or three issue. Up there, it’s a top two or top one.”