Wisconsin roads budget faces $1 billion shortfall

Walker doesn't want to raise taxes or fees
Posted at 7:01 AM, Jul 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-28 08:02:07-04
MADISON -- The Republican co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee is at odds with Gov. Scott Walker over whether tax and fee increases should be considered to help plug a nearly $1 billion shortfall in Wisconsin's transportation budget.
Walker doesn't want to raise taxes or fees, while Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren said Wednesday that has to be an option. Whether to borrow more, raise taxes and fees, or scale back on road and highway projects already underway or planned for the future will be one of the biggest issues facing the Legislature next year.
To help make his case, Nygren scheduled an unusual mid-summer conference call with reporters to release a memo by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing that just to pay for road projects that have already been approved, the state will need to come up with $939 million more.
Nygren urged Walker, lawmakers and the public to be open to all options -- including raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
"We need to have a dialogue about how we're going to fund our transportation needs," said Nygren, who is from Marinette. "All options need to be on the table."
Walker reiterated his position in a statement saying "raising taxes and fees is not the answer."
"Under our administration, we will keep it a priority to live within the means of the hardworking people of Wisconsin," Walker said. "That is a commitment I will honor."
Walker directed his Department of Transportation secretary to deliver a budget that identifies cost savings and prioritizes needs, but that doesn't raise taxes or fees. Doing that will delay road expansion work and upkeep on all but the state's most-traveled highways. The department's budget is due on Sept. 15, and it will serve as the starting point for the governor and Legislature as they work on the state's two-year spending plan to be passed in mid-2017.
In the last budget passed in 2015, Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion, but the Legislature scaled that back to $850 million. They rejected recommendations from a bipartisan transportation commission in 2013 that called for increasing the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, raising other transportation fees and using a mileage-based vehicle registration system.
Republicans have neglected road funding, short-changing the state and only with an election looming are they talking seriously about addressing it, said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
"On this issue, the Republican leadership's word means nothing," Barca said in a statement.
Nygren said borrowing more money and delaying projects is "not necessarily the fiscally conservative position."
Not addressing that problem will force future generations to pay for higher levels of borrowing without a substantial benefit, Nygren said. But he took no position on how much additional borrowing he would agree to.
Nygren said his preference would be to raise the gas tax because everyone who drives in Wisconsin, not just those who register vehicles in the state, would be affected. The state's gas tax is 30.9 cents per gallon and has not been raised since 2006.
Data released last year from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed the condition of Wisconsin's road among the nation's worst.