The Legislative Campaign Of 2020 Gets Underway

The co-chairs of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee have announced that votes on the 2019-21 budget will commence next Thursday. So, the first tangible action on the budget is now in the offing.

Conventional wisdom holds that closure on the budget won’t be reached until late summer or early fall.

With opinion on transportation divided among an otherwise mostly unified GOP, that issue is likely to provide the most drama and political theater. The state Assembly leadership believes new revenue is needed. The situation in the state Senate is much murkier.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) issued potentially game-changing information Tuesday that will help shape the debate.  It is must reading for legislators and candidates looking ahead to the 2020 election campaigns.

In a press release (“Future of Wisconsin’s infrastructure, economy at stake”), DOT Secretary Craig Thompson provided a list of more than 200 projects on the bubble if Governor Tony Evers’ plan for a higher gas tax is shelved. The Thompson release includes this:

The Governor’s plan invests an additional $320 million dollars into the State Highway Rehabilitation program for projects across Wisconsin. If these investments are not made and funding remains at base levels, approximately 212 projects will be delayed or removed from the state’s highway improvement program. These delays increases the percentage of roads rated poor or worse by 50 percent over the next decade.

Students of Campaign Literature 101 quickly will recognize that the projects stretch to the four corners of the state and cover the majority of legislative districts. A legislator who votes to kill or delay them has now received advance notice of the direct mail pieces that can be expected during his or her campaign.

The Evers Administration is wise to move the debate from 35,000 feet-above-the-ground rhetoric to real projects. The DOT table of projects on the bubble lists which Assembly and Senate district would be affected. How convenient.

The recent Marquette University Law School Poll has been cited by some legislators and their staff as evidence that voting for a gas tax increase would go against the grain of public opinion. When one considers the question, “Which is more important to you: keeping the gas tax and vehicle registration fees where they are now or raising the gas tax and registration fees to increase spending on roads and highways?”, I am surprised the purported opposition was not greater.  

When honestly framed “push” questions are presented to voters, such as by Gene Ulm’s respected Public Opinion Strategies, the results are quite different. Also, given other hot button issues polled by Marquette University Law School, conservative legislators may want to think twice about how much they wish to rely on the poll results.  

Personally, I’m a fan of elected officials who see their role in a representative system to include leading and shaping public opinion.


Click for the list of projects threatened to be canceled by the DOT.
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