MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. — After some itching and scratching, some arm-twisting and plenty of deal-making, budget committee Republicans delivered a $484 million transportation package that its defenders say will do what voters have demanded: “Fix the damn roads.” 

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, called the omnibus bill — approved Thursday by the Republican-controlled committee — “the most significant investment in new revenues in our transportation system in more than a generation.” 

Republican leadership boasted that their budget package matched or exceeded Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ transportation in several funding categories. 

And therein lies a big problem for some Senate fiscal hawks, who say a hefty revenue boost for the state Department of Transportation is too expensive and too thin on accountability for an agency in dire need of reform.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, the only Republican on the committee to vote against the spending bill, said he doesn’t “have a lot of faith” in DOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson, who lead a coalition of transportation and road-builder interests before being tapped by Evers to lead the agency. 

Stroebel’s office on Thursday said the Saukville Republican would have no further comment on his vote. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) had plenty to say about the spending plan. In a statement, released in advance of the transportation bill’s passage (11-5), Nass said the package was a “big win for the road building special interests and a big loss for the taxpayers.” 

While Republicans ditched Evers’ unpopular gas tax hikeand automatic annual tax increases through indexing, the package comes fully loaded with fee uppers and $326 million in bonding. Nygren said borrowing, however, is at its lowest level since the 2001-03 biennium. 

But the transportation spending levels remain a bridge too far for some Senate conservatives. 

“The current level of spending in the budget is gravely concerning,” Sen. Dave Craig (R-Big Bend). 

The transportation budget includes:

  •  A $95 increase in title fees
  • A $10 vehicle registration
  • Changes in truck registration fees, raising rates for trucks weighing up to 6,000 pounds.
  • $52 million more for county and municipality aids
  • $90 million in one-time funding for local road improvement programs
  • $30 million in bonding for freight rail preservation, and another $32 million for harbor assistance
  • Enumerations for I-43 project in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties; I-41 in Brown and Outagamie counties; $40 million in segregated revenue; $95 million in bonding for southeast Wisconsin “megaprojects.”

Nass said he has serious concerns about the level of structural deficit, as high as $1.5 billion, created by the Republican version of the budget. With a half-billion dollars more for K-12 education, another $588 million in General Purpose Revenues for Health Services-Medicaid Assistance, and now nearly $500 million more for transportation, some fiscal hawks see little difference between Evers’ massive $84.2 billion budget plan and what JFC Republicans have cooking. 

More troubling, some conservative lawmakers say, is a mileage-based fee provision. It’s Big Government, Big Brother, at it’s worst, according to Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen. 

For now, the transportation budget calls for a $2.5 million study that would “outline the policies, procedures, and operations needed to implement such fees,” and “a traffic and revenue analysis associated with such fees.” The question remains, what would such fee generator entail? An honor system with motorists reporting their quarterly or annual mileage to a bureaucracy? Or a tracking device in the vehicle that allows the government to monitor mileage. 

More so, the language gives the Finance Committee, not the full Legislature, the authority to approve or deny any mileage tracking plan that comes out of the study committee.

“The problem is that the same people who said yes to that provision in the budget will be responsible for saying yes or no to the recommendation,” Mikalsen said.  

“A mileage-based tax is of equal concern, not only from a fiscal perspective, but also from a privacy perspective,” Craig said. “I am skeptical that such a scheme will protect the privacy of Wisconsinites traveling.”

“These key factors are jeopardizing my support for the 2019-21 biennial budget,” Nass said in a statement. 

Nygren said Republicans are not in a spending competition with Evers. He acknowledges the transportation package includes some “significant spending,” but the Finance Committee Republicans are “funding the things that are the most important to the people in our state.”

While the governor’s full budget includes an 8.3 percent spending increase, including some tax increases despite record revenue collections, Nygren said the Republican plan draws from the fiscal “success” the state has enjoyed over the previous eight years. 

“At the end of the day, I think there is going to be something for everyone,” Nygren said. 

That’s the problem, conservative Capitol insiders told MacIver News Service. When everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

As one source put it, the conservative base expects Republican lawmakers to be a check on the Evers administration, “not a check for the Evers administration.”

Most galling to reform-focused conservatives is that the JFC Republicans’ budget includes but one DOT reform measure, and even that is a pilot program. Instead, Republican leadership says transportation reforms could be included in a stand-alone bill. 

“We may see a separate bill containing a few reforms at some point, but it is likely the Governor will veto any stand-alone bill relating to taxpayer accountability at the DOT,” Nass’ statement asserts. 

Sen. Dale Kooyenga said he wants to see the budget come together in its entirety, including tax relief, before he makes a final judgment. 

“I want to weigh out what we’re doing in transportation, if it’s net-net,” the Brookfield Republican said. “If I believe middle-class Wisconsinites are in a better position than they were last year, I’m game.” 

Kooyenga won’t have long to wait. 

Nygren said the Joint Finance Committee will finish up its budget work next week, taking up the state Building Commission budget and taxes. Evers proposed a whopping $2.5 billion increase in borrowing for a bevy of state building projects. JFC Republicans will whittle down the spending plan, Nygren said, before wrapping up the budget-writing session with a tax-cut package. 

“We hopefully we’ll … be able to deliver sizable” relief, he said. 

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