April 10, 2018

Paving the Way to Highway Project Accountability

Every day, our state government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to provide the services Wisconsinites have come to expect. While providing these services, it’s crucial that we ensure accountability and oversight for each dollar spent. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee and the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau have been the Legislature’s way to ensure accountability in Wisconsin state government for over 50 years.

Recently, I’ve had the privilege to serve as the Co-Chair of this Joint Committee. The Committee, a ten-member body from both houses of the Legislature, requests objective audits from the Legislative Audit Bureau of our state agencies’ operations. These audits help to ensure financial transactions are properly made and determines whether programs are being administered effectively and efficiently. Additionally, the Committee has the option to introduce legislation related to findings in the audits to augment current practices and ensure agency improvements.

A recent audit (Report 17-2) made headlines when some concerning results were released on the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) State Highway Program. The primary finding showed costs for major highway projects exceeded original estimates by more than 110%, totaling over $3.8 billion!

Overall, the audit showed that the DOT systematically failed to properly budget for their fiscal needs, leaving DOT overworked and underfunded which lead to drastic project delays and wildly inflated costs. The Committee agreed that this audit should serve as a resource to tighten up DOT practices to ensure that project estimates correctly reflect true costs. Working with the experts at the Audit Bureau, the Committee introduced 2017 Senate Bill 85.

Senate Bill 85 turns this audit into action by laying out several requirements of DOT for current and future major highway projects that will increase accountability and ensure that taxpayers are receiving the best highway transportation services at the best costs.

Primarily, this bill requires accurate and complete cost estimates at the beginning phases of a transportation project during enumeration and necessitates the consideration of a cost-benefit analysis for each project. Additionally, this bill requires the DOT to update the quantification of major highway projects on a regular basis, and for the updated cost estimates to be reported to the Legislature. In the past, if the public wanted to measure cost changes from year-to-year, they would have to go through the tedious process of comparing many years of project reports. Under Senate Bill 85, project cost changes will be more upfront and transparent.

This legislation passed the Senate in May of last year and the Assembly in February of this year, and saw strong, bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature. Last week, Senate Bill 85 was signed into law by the Governor as 2017 Wisconsin Act 247. Now that Senate Bill 85 is enacted, DOT has a statutory process to ensure that transportation resources are put to best use. Simply put, Act 247 will help to guarantee that our state receives the quality highways we desire through bolstering the accountability Wisconsinites demand.

Perhaps no governmental function impacts a resident’s daily life more than roads. Wisconsin taxpayers deserve quality roads, but funding major highway projects without accountability is irresponsible. It’s encouraging that this common-sense legislation was supported by a bipartisan group of legislators, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Legislature to enact more accountability in our state government.

Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) is the State Senator for Wisconsin’s 2nd Senate District, covering portions of Brown, Outagamie, Shawano and Waupaca counties. Senator Cowles serves as Co-Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.


Column Published in the Clintonville Tribune-Gazette, Green Bay Press-Gazette, New London Press Star, and The Press (in the Greater Green Bay area)