Assembly Democrats quickly criticize Republican transportation proposal, expected Thursday

By Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans were tight-lipped Tuesday about a roads funding proposal expected to be released later this week, while Democrats were quick to criticize details outlined in news reports.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, declined to comment on the proposal he has been crafting other than to say he expects to release it in full on Thursday. Details expected to be included were reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday.

The plan could propose cutting the state's gas tax by 4 or 5 cents while applying the state's 5 percent sales tax to gasoline sales, the Journal Sentinel reported. It could also include income tax cuts made with the goal of moving the state toward a 4 percent flat tax, and would reduce the amount of borrowing for roads projects by about $300 million, according to the report.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Democrats might be willing to consider supporting the gas tax adjustments. But the flat tax proposal and income tax cuts drew immediate criticism.

"What we’re hearing from Assembly Republicans is an unnecessarily complicated Trojan Horse to effectively move revenue away from schools and universities to pay for infrastructure," said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

The proposal could also include a 6 percent reduction to the state's minimum markup on gasoline prices and a repeal of prevailing wage requirements for public works projects, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Those moves could be harmful to workers and small businesses, said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. Supporters of prevailing wage repeal say it would cut down on over-inflated costs, while opponents say it would lower wages.

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, praised Kooyenga's work on the proposal on Monday.

"Dale Kooyenga's done a great job working within the framework of the governor's budget and trying to increase revenues and keep taxes flat. I think he's done a great job," Nygren told reporters on Monday.

A spokeswoman on Tuesday said he did not have any additional comment. A spokesman for committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee dropped Gov. Scott Walker's transportation proposal from the 2017-19 budget last month, signaling the committee will essentially build its own proposal from a blank slate. Transportation funding looms as one of the budget's most pressing questions.

Walker's $76.1 billion budget would have allocated about $6.1 billion for transportation funding, including a $40 million increase in general transportation aids to counties and municipalities. The proposal included $500 million in borrowing.

While Walker said his proposal focused on safety and maintenance, Assembly Republicans argued it didn't offer a long-term fix, and have called for a $300 million revenue hike offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere.

Walker told reporters in Sun Prairie on Tuesday he has spoken with Kooyenga about the proposal, but some elements of the plan have changed since he was last briefed on it.

"I want to see it in totality," Walker said. "Obviously I've made it consistent from day one that I didn't think we needed to raise the gas tax or the vehicle registration fee, and I remain consistent to that. We'll see what's ultimately in there in the proposal."