By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans won a key legislator’s support for the state budget Wednesday by inserting provisions in the spending plan that would allow the electric-car manufacturer Tesla to open dealerships in the state.
Sen. Chris Kapenga, who describes himself as a “gearhead,” rebuilds Tesla vehicles in his spare time and sells leftover parts. He insists he doesn’t see any profits from his efforts. He has been pushing a bill for the last two years that would allow Tesla to open dealerships in Wisconsin.
He found himself at the center of the political wrangling over the state budget this week. Assembly Republicans passed the $81 billion spending plan Tuesday night, pushing the budget to the Senate for a vote on Wednesday.
Republicans control the Senate 19-14 but two GOP senators, Steve Nass and Dave Craig, openly said they wouldn’t vote for the budget because it spends too much. Kapenga is part of the same hardline conservative faction within the Senate GOP caucus and thus questions about whether he would support the document began swirling immediately. If Republicans lost him, they would be one vote short of passing the budget through the Senate.
The provision concerning Tesla would make for an exception in Wisconsin law. Current law prohibits automakers from directly operating or controlling a dealership. Kapenga introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have granted Tesla permission but the proposal died.
Republicans on Tuesday inserted the Tesla dealership language in the budget in an attempt to win Kapenga’s support for the plan. Later in the day the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Kapenga runs a business that sells Tesla parts and salvaged electric vehicles.
Kapenga said Tuesday that the business is a hobby and he’s made no money on it. His latest economic interest statements on file with the state Ethics Commission mention his interest in the business, Integrity Motorsports LLC, but don’t mention it as a source of income.
Minutes before the Senate was scheduled to convene Wednesday morning, Kapenga called a news conference to announce he would vote for the budget.
Choking up at times, he told reporters that political opponents are trying to impugn his character by spreading stories about his business.
He insisted that he simply loves Tesla vehicles and loves rebuilding them in his downtime. He sells the leftover parts but doesn’t profit on them, he said.
“I purchased a handful of Teslas to get parts I need and I’m selling parts I don’t need,” he said. “It is just what I love to do in my spare time.”
Kapenga said he had spoken to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald about including the dealership language in the budget but that the provisions alone didn’t convince him to vote for the spending plan. He cited other spending reductions Republicans made to the plan as they revised it over the last few months.
Senate debate on the budget began immediately after Kapenga finished his news conference. Fitzgerald began the proceedings by praising Republicans for scaling back by about $2 billion the spending proposed in Gov. Tony Evers’ initial budget.
“We’ve turned his out-of-control spending plan and turned it into a responsible budget for Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald said. “(Evers) has every reason to sign this bill and get this money to the schools and taxpayers of Wisconsin.”
It was unclear when the Senate would vote.
If Republicans can get the budget through the Senate, the bill then goes to Evers. The governor could sign it, veto it in its entirety or use his partial veto powers to revise the spending plan to make it more palatable to Democrats.
Evers has the power to strike individual words from the budget, which both Republican and Democratic governors have done in the past to undo the will of the Legislature. One change Republicans made Tuesday replacde the phrases “may not” and “shall not” with “cannot” throughout the budget, making it more difficult for Evers to reverse to use a partial veto to do the opposite of what Republicans had intended.
Evers and Republicans haven’t been able to compromise on any big issues since Evers office in January. It’s unclear how Evers will handle the budget. He has said only that he wants to see the final document before deciding what to do.
The current budget runs through Sunday, but state government would not shut down if there were a stalemate. Instead, current spending levels would continue until the next two-year budget is enacted, however long that takes.
Under the budget the Assembly passed on Tuesday, car-registration and title fees, rather than gas taxes, would increase to pay for roads. Republicans also would reduce income taxes by about $450 million. That would cut income taxes on average by $91 per person in 2019 and by $124 in 2020. Evers proposed a higher income tax cut paid for by nearly ending a manufacturing tax credit that Republicans went on to protect.
The budget also calls for starting work on a new prison to replace the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution, extending the state’s land stewardship program through mid-2022, providing raises to state workers and continuing a tuition freeze for the University of Wisconsin System.