Lawmakers press transportation secretary for road funding fix; Walker tweets veto threat

By Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times

Members of the Legislature's budget-writing committee tangled with Transportation Secretary Dave Ross late Wednesday night as they debated how best to fund Wisconsin's roads.

Reaching a long-term transportation funding solution will likely be "the biggest challenge" as lawmakers consider Gov. Scott Walker's $76.1 billion budget proposal, said Joint Finance Committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. 

"At some point we have to get a big picture plan about where we're going with transportation," Darling said.

Walker's two-year spending plan allocates about $6.1 billion for transportation funding, including a $40 million increase in general transportation aids to counties and municipalities.

The proposal also includes $500 million in borrowing — the state's lowest level of transportation bonding since the 2001-03 budget, but a figure some legislators say is still too high. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects about 22 cents on the dollar will go to transportation debt service by the end of 2019.

While the governor says his proposal focuses on safety and maintenance, Assembly Republicans say it doesn't offer a long-term fix and have called for a $300 million revenue hike offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere. Democrats and Assembly Republicans joined together in questioning whether it is wise to borrow money and delay projects, while Senate Republicans staked out a variety of positions. 

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, indicated support for a revenue boost based on a user fee model — "if you're using it, you pay for it" — to address what he called a "broken" revenue mix.

Walker, during the briefing Wednesday night, tweeted that he would veto a gas tax increase. He has said throughout the debate over transportation funding that he would veto a gas tax hike or vehicle registration fee increase without a corresponding tax cut somewhere else.

"We, I believe, are prepared to bite the bullet and raise some revenue, but we need you — which I know you won’t — to say, 'Do it for me. I need that,'" said Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. "Your predecessor would do that. We need you to do it."

Olsen later clarified the Senate Republican caucus does not have a unified position on transportation funding.

"There are a lot of different ideas on the table, but we can’t say we’re not going to come up with a solution," Darling said. "I know we will. And we will, not only short-term, but long-term."

Ross replaced former Secretary Mark Gottlieb early this year. Gottlieb resigned shortly after he told lawmakers the number of state highways in poor condition was set to double over the next decade.

Fielding questions for nearly three hours, until about 11:30 p.m., Ross alluded several times to an audit released in January that found the Department of Transportation significantly underestimated the costs of major highway projects and did not do all it could to manage expenses.

"The problem is you weren't told accurate information in past budgets," Ross said. "You weren't told the total cost."

A "significant amount of staff" at the agency have been replaced since Ross assumed leadership at DOT, he said.

Lawmakers on the panel noted another finding of the audit: the percentage of the state's 11,758 miles of state highways rated in good condition declined from 53.5 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2015.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said the budget "digs us further into a hole that we can't get of."

"How do you, as the secretary of the Department of Transportation, feel good with basically a budget that is not meeting our priorities, leading an organization that is going to see the further decline of our roads and have them become less safe?" asked committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

Ross argued the budget proposal "exemplifies accountable and efficient government," describing it as a "significant" investment that "reallocates resources where they’re most needed."

"This budget places emphasis on the safety, preservation and maintenance of our state's transportation system," Ross said. 

The state should focus on completing active highway construction and not start any new projects that might not qualify for matching federal funds, he said.

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, commended the agency for working to get its "fiscal house in order … without raising taxes."

Both Olsen and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, questioned whether the agency would turn away additional revenue if the Legislature offered it. 

"It seems like we’re on a track where we’re stalling everything out, it’s going to cost us more money, we’re not raising revenue and we’re going to be spiraling down into a hole where it will cost us so much money to get our roads into shape that we’ll never get it done," Olsen said.

Erpenbach, referencing Walker's tweet pledging a veto, noted the legislative and executive branches "are still coequal branches of government."

Ross would not say how the agency would respond to additional revenue.

"We are going to fulfill whatever budget is passed," he said.