By WPR Staff and The Associated Press, Wisconsin Public Radio
Gov. Scott Walker has put forward what he hopes is a compromise on state transportation funding that will lead to a budget deal in the Republican-controlled Legislature without raising gas taxes or vehicle fees.
Walker is proposing lowering borrowing to pay for roads by $200 million through cost savings and other administrative actions. At the same time, the state may request 10 times more than it traditionally gets in certain federal money for roads.
Walker outlined the proposal in a letter to legislative Republican leaders on Wednesday. It was obtained by news outlets Thursday.
The governor's plan includes using federal money to finance borrowing to pay for keeping mega-interstate projects, especially in southeast Wisconsin, on schedule.
A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau requested by Democratic state Rep. Gordon Hintz says the state Department of Transportation may ask for $341 million. In the past five years, the state has received an average of about $34 million in what is known as federal redistribution aid.
But a Walker spokesman wouldn't confirm Thursday if the governor would seek that large of an increase.
Tom Evenson said the exact amount to be requested will be a part of "ongoing discussions we have with the Legislature."
Republican legislative leaders said Thursday they were trying to understand those details, while praising Walker for attempting to reach a budget deal. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said it shows movement on budget talks that could potentially lead to a deal on road funding.
How much to borrow has been a major sticking point between legislative Republicans and Walker in their effort to reach a deal. Assembly Republicans have said it's too much, while Senate Republicans have supported bonding of $850 million and opposed raising taxes or fees.
Vos said Walker's floating of the idea that there may be federal money available to lessen borrowing is a move in the right direction and he's "patiently waiting" for the Senate to come forward with its ideas. Senate Republicans were meeting privately Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said a proposal could be part of a funding solution and that he's "all ears."
Meanwhile, Democrats criticized Walker's proposal.
"I think it's really unrealistic and frankly fantasy budgeting to hinge your hopes on something that's likely not to come true," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.
Shankland also said it was hypocritical of Walker to ask for more federal money for roads when he has opposed seeking more federal money for Medicaid.
"I find it ironic that the governor is no longer allergic to federal dollars now that he's requesting a bailout since he's unwilling to sit down and solve the transportation problem we've had for many years," she said.
Others worried Walker's plan to borrow less could lead to the state spending less on road construction and project delays.
Dan Cunningham with the group Forward Janesville said he needed to learn more about the plan, but he said his city was relying on consistent state funding to keep the I-39/90 construction project on schedule.
"It's hard to say without seeing all the details of what that bonding might go towards, but it does make me a little nervous," Cunningham said. "If we reduce the size of the pie, then people might get squeezed."
The budget memo also showed that road projects would be largely unaffected by the ongoing budget stalemate unless a new deal isn't reached for three to six months.