Wisconsin budget committee approves transportation package after months-long impasse

By Jessie Opoien,The Cap Times 

After a months-long stalemate, Republican lawmakers have reached a deal on funding Wisconsin's roads that includes about $402 million in borrowing, new fees for electric and hybrid vehicles, construction delays and modifications to quarry regulations.

The agreement comes with disappointments for lawmakers in both the Assembly and Senate, and doesn't alleviate concerns that the state has not found a long-term solution to pay for its roads.

"We're not going to come up with a long-term solution for transportation. That's disappointing," said Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. "But you live to fight another day. You don't get everything you want."

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, who introduced a broad transportation proposal of his own earlier this year, said the state is far from a "utopia" on transportation funding, but the package "moves us in the right direction."

Joint Finance co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she "can't hide" her disappointment that the budget will not fund construction on Interstate 94 east-west in Milwaukee.

"I think what we’re doing maybe is a bit shortsighted, I would say it is shortsighted because we’re going to have orange buckets up all over the place for years," Darling said of the decision to delay that project and a portion of the Zoo Interchange.

But Nygren argued the budget demonstrates that "you're not going to make a commitment you can't pay for."

In a party line vote, the budget-writing committee approved the transportation package Tuesday evening. The state budget is now more than two months overdue, and lawmakers on the committee are hoping to complete their work this week. The package approved hews closely to what Gov. Scott Walker introduced in his original proposal, with some changes.

"It may not address every issue that we’d like to address, but it addresses a number of them in positive ways," said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.

Position elimination, reduction in borrowing

Under the GOP measure, the state Department of Transportation would be required to eliminate 100 positions in each year of the budget, along with some private management consultant positions. The agency would be required to lapse $13 million tied to those reductions and to overtime savings outside of the State Patrol.

The deal allows for about $402 million in borrowing — about $100 million less than what Walker proposed in his budget. Of that total, $150 million will come from the transportation fund. The remaining $252 million allocated for the I-94 north-south project under an incentive deal for Foxconn, will come from the general fund and is contingent on receiving matching federal funds.

Lawmakers have struggled for months to reach agreement on how to close a projected $1 billion gap in the transportation fund. Assembly Republicans have resisted allowing bonding without a corresponding revenue increase, while Senate Republicans have argued for more borrowing than what Walker's budget originally proposed.

Democrats on the committee called the GOP proposal a "failure" and accused the majority party of putting off a long-term solution and worsening the state of the transportation fund.

"We’ve been waiting on y’all all summer and this is what you came up with?" asked Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said the state's transportation fund is "a bipartisan problem, but this is a very partisan solution that doesn’t do anything."

Fees for electric, hybrid cars

Walker has refused to support any increase in the state's 32.9 cents-per-gallon gas tax or its $75 registration fee.

Under the GOP plan, owners of electric vehicles would pay an additional $100 fee, while owners of hybrid vehicles would pay a $75 fee. That's designed to create "parity" with drivers who are funding roads by purchasing gasoline, Walker has said. The fees are expected to generate about $8.4 million over the biennium.

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he might be willing to support a surcharge like that if it were part of a comprehensive transportation funding solution, but the $100 and $75 levels are too high. Hintz said a plan floated previously by Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, to implement weight-based charges for heavy trucks was "more considerate." Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, also offered praise for Loudenbeck's proposal.

"This is clearly an attempt to solve the budget impasse, not to address the structural funding issue," Hintz said.

The deal would not add further delays to projects including the Verona Road expansion on Madison's southwest side, which is on track for completion in 2020. Nygren said projects that are currently in the queue for completion "should not see any significant delays" beyond what the governor's budget laid out.

Prevailing wage, local regulations eliminated

A significant portion of the 19-page omnibus motion is dedicated to limiting local regulation of quarries where nonmetallic materials are mined for transportation projects.

Limits would be placed on local governments' ability to regulate noise, blasting, water and air quality standards, the depth and quantity of materials being mined, truck traffic and hours of operation.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, questioned what those changes had to do with roads projects. Representatives from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said they were not aware of a connection.

"There is sincere belief that local regulation that is limiting quarries from being able to move their product to projects that are close by is seriously increasing the cost of our projects to the tune of millions of dollars in our state," Nygren said.

The package completely eliminates the state's prevailing wage law, which sets minimum pay requirements for construction workers on public projects, would be completely eliminated. Opponents of the move say it will lead to lower wages and unsafe work conditions. A Democratic amendment to remove the provision was defeated.

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said abolishing prevailing wage, which she called an antiquated law, will be a "huge victory for taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin."

The plan also directs the state Department of Transportation to spend $2.5 million studying the implementation of tolling, instructs DOT study its ability to "swap" a portion of federal funds with state dollars for some roads projects and places limits on public dollars that can be spent on a streetcar project in Milwaukee.

The state learned last week that it will receive $66 million in additional aid from the federal government — far less than the $341 million it requested, but about twice as much as it has received in the past.