Democrats blast road funding for Foxconn

By Richard Moore, The Lakeland Times 

Democrats in the Legislature are furious over the Walker administration's decision to use $134 million in state highway rehabilitation funds for roads near the planned Foxconn site, calling it a raid on the account that will affect local communities around the state.

Democrats on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee as well as Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz said the expenditure had not previously been disclosed and was not part of the nearly $3 billion Foxconn subsidy legislation but in addition to it.

What's more, Hintz said the Legislative Fiscal Bureau deemed it "unlikely" that the work was accounted for in the state highway rehabilitation fund when the 2017-19 budget was adopted and "would likely result in the delay of other, previously planned rehabilitation projects on state highways."

"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Hintz asked.

Hintz cited a spokesperson for Walker's office as saying the use of the money would be offset by the early completion of other highway projects, presumably state Hwy. 441.

"However, according to the Walker administration, these 'savings were announced in April 2017,' and LFB confirmed they were likely already accounted for in the budget," Hintz's office stated. 'Additionally, any savings generated by the completion of 441 would require legislative action to be transferred to the highway rehabilitation program, according to the LFB."

Hintz said one of two things was going on: Either the Walker administration was double-counting previously announced savings and applying them to the completion of state Hwy. 441 and the new Foxconn costs, or there are new, undisclosed savings that cannot be applied to Foxconn without legislative action.

"Regardless, the end result is state highway projects around the state will be shortchanged and delayed, all in the name of giving additional Wisconsin tax dollars to a foreign corporation," Hintz said. "State highway rehabilitation funding is a zero sum game, and regardless of the gimmicks Gov. Walker is playing to complicate the issue, the rest of the state will ultimately pay the price. When it comes to finding sustainable solutions for our state's transportation needs, Walker kicks the can down the road and Wisconsin loses."

What he said

Democrats on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee - Sen. Lena Taylor, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, Rep. Chris Taylor, and Rep. Katrina Shankland -sent a letter expressing the same arguments to Department of Transportation secretary Dave Ross.

The lawmakers expressed concern over revelations about some of the funding announced since the passage of the Foxconn bill.

"Namely, that $134 million in state highway rehabilitation funding (or 17 percent of the amount allocated for the entire state over the 2017-19 biennium) intended for state highway projects around the state is being diverted for road improvements near the Foxconn site," the lawmakers wrote. "This is a previously undisclosed subsidy and is in addition to the $252.4 million in general obligation bonds being used for the I-94 North-South corridor to support the Foxconn project."

The legislators said they wanted to know what the impacts would be to previously planned rehabilitation projects on state highways and what specific communities and projects would be affected.

"JFC passed a budget that included funding for state rehabilitation projects, not Foxconn," they wrote. "Additionally, if any money is being redirected, we request that you appear before JFC to discuss this in detail. We believe that Wisconsin taxpayers deserve full transparency about where this funding is coming from and how it will affect their local roads, which are in desperate need of repair."

To access the money, the state converted several local roads into state highways, according to the Associated Press, and the governor's office said most of the costs would be made up by completing other highway projects ahead of schedule.

Better-than-anticipated revenues and cost savings would free up more than $100 million, the AP reported the governor's office as saying.

The flare-up is the latest controversy surrounding the Foxconn project, which most Democrats have opposed. They argue that Foxconn is being handed too many tax dollars and the project won't compensate taxpayers for their investment.

The latest diversion of funds from the highway rehabilitation fund adds insult to injury, since Hintz has previously said the money going to Foxconn in the nearly $3 billion package should be used for other needs the state has, including roads.

"In order to create long-term economic growth, we need to invest in Wisconsin," he said when the Foxconn bill was being debated. "Our focus will remain on fully funding public education, fixing our crumbling roads, and providing health care to more of our friends and neighbors across the state."

Foxconn is also pushing for - and the state is studying - lanes for driverless, or autonomous, cars, on I-94.