In a move that delighted Gov. Scott Walker but didn't please some other Republicans, or Democrats, the Legislature's joint finance committee (JFC) reached a transportation deal last week as part of the state budget it passed, a package which would, among other things, slap a fee on hybrid and electric vehicles and delay certain major road projects in southern Wisconsin.
The budget plan does not raise taxes, though, a line Walker had drawn in the sand, and the governor said the two-year transportation budget plan secured major objectives.
"This budget includes more transportation funding for all levels of government to provide better roads and bridges, the most funding in our history for state highway rehabilitation, and historically low levels of borrowing," Walker said. "We did all of this without raising taxes."
State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the JFC co-chairman, also praised the transportation budget.
"Since day one of the budget process, Assembly Republicans have had the goal of both finding revenue sources for the transportation fund and reducing our unsustainable reliance on bonding for transportation," Nygren said. "While this budget is not a solution to our transportation funding problem, we are taking a step in the right direction. This is going to be a large conversation. I believe we began that conversation in this budget."
Nygren pointed to the budget deal's limited reliance on bonding and no taxes as sending a message to state taxpayers that the state won't spend what it can't afford.
"I look forward to continuing to advocate for and work toward finding a long-term and sustainable funding solution for our state roads," he said.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) thanked Walker and her legislative colleagues for committing to timely completion of the I-39/90 corridor from the state line to Madison.
"The dedicated funding to the majors highway program will help keep this project moving forward and on time," Loudenbeck said.
Loudenbeck also lauded the plan's increase in general transportation aid, and in the local bridge replacement program. She said those programs provide critical assistance in funding the maintenance, repair, and replacement of local infrastructure.
"Today we took steps to help the transportation fund by reducing the amount of bonding, and increasing revenue slightly with a hybrid/electronic vehicle fee," she said. "I strongly believe Wisconsin must formulate an adequate, sustainable, and equitable transportation funding system in order to ensure we are meeting all of our infrastructure obligations."
Democrats and advocates of increased gas taxes criticized the plan, saying it would shove Wisconsin's transportation shortfalls into the future.
Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said Republican infighting did not help and did not produce tangible positive results.
"Republicans spent more than two months squabbling with each other and this is the result - a spending plan that still doesn't create a sustainable funding solution, that is littered with political pork for their buddies, and sneaks in non-budget policy changes that strip local control from counties, towns, and cities across Wisconsin," Barca said. "Maybe we should have sent legislative Republicans back to school today because, yet again, they are failing."
Barca said Wisconsin families deserved real solutions that address the state's crumbling roads and failing bridges.
"Wisconsin families deserve a government that relies less on debt," he said. "They deserve a government that is honest that the Republican solution means drivers will continue to spend more on front-end alignments and road delays out of their family budget. Republicans want to push the costs off onto our children. Republicans want to lower wages for transportation construction workers. That is not the future Democrats want for Wisconsin."
Transportation Development Association executive director Craig Thompson said the Legislature was again poised to merely kick the can on transportation.
"Despite spirited efforts by many in the Legislature to hold out for a responsible transportation solution, the motion passed by the joint finance committee does not even begin to address Wisconsin's daunting transportation challenges," Thompson said. "In fact, this plan actually reduces the Highway Improvement Program by about $250 million from the previous budget. Wisconsin needs a plan to improve poor road conditions, help local governments shorten road replacement cycles, rebuild the 50-year-old interstate system in southeastern Wisconsin and make other investments to strengthen our transportation system. That is not what we got."
If there is a silver lining, Thompson said, it is that the Legislature isn't papering over the problem with new debt.
"But they accomplish the reduction in borrowing by decreasing the rehabilitation budget and delaying important projects," he said. "This will do nothing to improve the condition of Wisconsin's roads, which U.S. News & World Report recently ranked 49th in the country. Fortunately, the budget is expected to include, as part of the Foxconn deal, funding to complete the final link of the I-94 North-South project, which began in 2008."
To boost revenues somewhat, the budget plan will impose a $75 fee on electric and hybrid vehicles. In addition, a portion of the Zoo Interchange and I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges would be delayed.
The plan also takes aim at local control, restricting local regulations on quarries, sand mines, and gravel pits, and it would take another look at tolling, as well as eliminate some 200 DOT positions.
1000 Friends of Wisconsin took a mixed view of the budget plan.
"1000 Friends welcomes the responsible decision by the joint finance committee not to enumerate the expansion of Interstate 94 East-West in Milwaukee," the group said. "This project would have had a disastrous impact on neighborhoods in the city, in addition to costing Wisconsin taxpayers over $1 billion in capital costs and millions more in maintenance in the future."
The group also liked the increase in funding for local road and bridge repair, which it said would provide municipalities, towns, and villages with some relief as they struggle to maintain their infrastructure.
"However, there are several retrograde steps in the budget that will harm Wisconsin communities," the group's statement said. "A new fee on electric vehicles and fuel efficient hybrids will unfairly penalize those making better transportation choices. There are also no new investments in public transit, walking and biking infrastructure - all of which are key to making the state an attractive destination for businesses, young professionals, and seniors looking for a high quality of life."
The group said the transportation funding crisis is a result of misplaced spending priorities and not one of revenues.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.