May 27, 2015

Wisconsin transportation funding outlook remains unclear

Verona Road project, Madison (WRN photo)

Verona Road project, Madison (WRN photo)

Uncertainty remains over transportation funding in Wisconsin, as the clock runs down on state budget deliberations. Governor Scott Walker’s proposed two-year state budget includes borrowing about $1.3 billion to fund road and infrastructure projects, but Republicans in both chambers have pushed back. At the same time, Walker has indicated opposition to any gas tax increase. Transportation is one of the major agenda items remaining before the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which expects to wrap up deliberations this week.

“For as close as we are, it’s really very unclear right now,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association. “Leadership in both houses has said that they’re unwilling to go to the level of bonding that the governor has proposed, so the question is, is there going to be other revenue taken up to fill in that amount, or are we going to look at filling it in with delays and cuts?”

Thompson said project cuts and delays may be on the table – and perhaps even on the ongoing Zoo Interchange project in Milwaukee could be impacted. “If you’re looking at legislators from across the state trying to make this work, and $600 million in this budget is for the Zoo Interchange, I’m not sure how they end up voting for a budget that keeps that on track at the expense of every other part of the state.”

Past efforts to address the state’s ongoing shortfall in transportation funding have failed to gain traction in the legislature. In early 2013, a commission appointed by the governor released a report which included a gas tax increase, and a new vehicle registration fee based on miles driven. Those recommendations were not taken up, and the state faces an estimated $5 billion shortfall in the next ten years.

“The transportation department and DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb put a great deal of work and effort on the proposal they put forth, and I think a lot of us assumed it was with the backing of the administration, so the fact that none of that has been acted on has been a surprising to a lot of us,” Thompson said. “If we don’t come up with revenue, then everything is on the table.”

As budget writers look for additional revenue, they may consider a tax on bicycle purchases. It’s an idea that’s apparently been kicking around in state budget negotiations. Wisconsin Bicycle Federation executive director Dave Cieslewicz said the organization doesn’t necessarily oppose that, but that the state’s bicycle industry ought to be consulted.

Cieslewicz noted the budget already contains some hits on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, through repeal the state’s 2009 Complete Streets law as recommended by Walker. “He would cut funding for both bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure by $2 million. We’ve been fighting both of those things.” A Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper said that a $25 new bike tax could generate more than $7 million in the next two years.

Walker out as WEDC board chair

Governor Walker (WRN photo)

Governor Walker (WRN photo)

Republicans on the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted Thursday to remove Governor Scott Walker as chairman of the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state’s job creation agency. Democrats in the panel used debate on the issue to criticize WEDC, the public-private partnership formed in 2011 as successor to the state commerce department.

“Once upon a time, WEDC was supposed to be our absentee governor’s economic development engine. It was supposed to create 250,000 jobs,” said Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison), alluding both to the governor’s frequent absences as he considers a campaign for president, and numbers released on Thursday showing the state had added 129,131 private-sector jobs in the four years of Walker’s first term in office. The Republican governor had pledged to create 250,000 jobs in his first term.

Republicans on the finance panel said Walker asked to be removed as chair of the WEDC board. “We did not fire the governor from the board,” said committee co-chair, Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “The governor asked to be removed from the board. Whenever the governor was there it became tit-for-tat.” Darling said Walker wanted to “de-politicize” the board.

Democrats weren’t buying that explanation. “He’s taking the chicken way out, if he asked to get off this board,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “If he called you guys and said ‘take me off the board,’ he is taking the chicken way out, and turning his back on Wisconsin.”

“I think he loves Wisconsin so much, that he felt that if some of the members on that board feel like that if the group would be better off if he would not be the chair, I’d say that’s leadership on his part,” said Darling.

Under the changes approved by JFC Thursday, the WEDC board chair would be a member of the public voted on by a majority of board members. The committee also tossed out a merger of WEDC and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, something Walker has included in his proposed budget, but recently reversed course on.

WEDC has dogged by ongoing problems since its formation. The latest include a state audit released earlier this month by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, showing that WEDC continues to have problems complying with a number of state laws and regulations, and a Wisconsin State Journal report which found that the owner of a Milwaukee construction firm received a half-million dollar business loan that Walker’s top aides had pushed for.

No budget changes to Wisconsin’s SeniorCare program

AARP members rally for SeniorCare

AARP members rally for SeniorCare

State budget writers will leave a popular program alone. Joint Finance Committee co-chair, Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette), acknowledged the outcry by seniors in response to Governor Scott Walker’s proposed changes to the SeniorCare prescription drug plan.

“There will be no changes to the program, and that’s basically to the credit of the folks in Wisconsin, and the people who represent them down here in Madison,” Nygren said.

Walker’s plan called for requiring SeniorCare enrollees to first get their drugs through Medicare Part D, with the state program filling the coverage gap. It would have increased premiums for more than 87,000 enrollees in the program. Nygren had indicated as early as March that Walker’s changes were unlikely to remain in the budget.

“This is something they (seniors) have grown to expect.” Nygren said. “They understand it, it’s a very simple program. You pay your enrollment fee, you have five dollar co-pay and fifteen dollar co-pay. Very easy, very clean to understand.”

Representative Andy Jorgenson (D-Milton), who took the lead in opposing the governor’s proposed changes to SeniorCare, called the decision a victory for seniors. “It’s sad that it takes over 14,000 people to sign petitions, to lose a lot of sleep, to work really hard to make something that’s so common sense happen,” Jorgenson said.

Disability advocate criticizes JFC vote on special needs vouchers

A “sneak attack” on the issue of special needs vouchers. That’s how Stop Special Needs Vouchers spokeswoman Terri Hart-Ellis refers to late-night action by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee, who inserted a program into the state budget.

Hart-Ellis contends parents of special needs kids may not be well served by vouchers. “They think they’re going to maybe get these services and this attention as far as special education is concerned. They get to the school and they find out that’s not the case,” said Hart-Ellis, whose 11 year-old daughter cannot speak and uses sign language and an iPad in her public school classroom.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unveiled the program on Tuesday, and voted to pass it at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. State funding – in this case $12,000 per student – would go towards a voucher which parents could use  to send their special needs student to a private school.

Similar measures have been previously rejected by the legislature, and the provision voted on Wednesday was not part of Governor Scott Walker’s proposed state spending plan.

“The process itself, sort of under cover of night with no public input, is really pretty outrageous,” said Hart-Ellis. “The opportunities that we did have in the past, we made ourselves so clear that legislation did not pass. So yeah, it’s kind of a sneak attack.”

Ribble, Kind reject short term highway funding bill

Two members of Wisconsin’s House delegation, 8th District Republican Reid Ribble and 3rd District Democrat Ron Kind, were among a handful of representatives who voted no this week on a two month extension of federal highway funding.

“This kind of kick the can down the road does nothing to reduce costs,” Ribble told WRN. “In fact I believe it increases costs to the taxpayer and increases uncertainty to the states. It does everything that the Congress should not be doing as it relates to transportation.”

Rep. Reid Ribble

Rep. Reid Ribble

“Enough is enough. Congress has extended this funding 23 times in the last 12 years, and we can’t keep having the same debate over and over again. Continued short-term stopgap measures are not the way to run a country as great as the United States,” Kind said in a statement released by his office. “A two month short-term extension will not give local and state officials the certainty they need. Wisconsinites deserve a long-term plan that will create jobs by investing in our nation’s roads, bridges and workforce.”

Ribble said that local and state transportation officials recognize that the stop-gap funding measures like that passed on Tuesday raises costs. “You can’t do any long-term strategic planning,” he said.

Ribble, who has authored a bipartisan “Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act,” said federal lawmakers are afraid to take the necessary step of increasing fuel taxes – but failing to do so merely pushes costs off on those who aren’t even yet old enough to drive.

Rep. Ron Kind

Rep. Ron Kind

“We’re saying to that 12 year-old in middle school, ‘you’ve got pay for our roads when you grow up, and you’ve got to pay for your roads when you grow up. Sorry, we don’t want to pay for our own, so we’re going to charge you instead,’” he said.

Tuesday’s vote on the funding measure (HR 2353) was 387-35, with 1 member voting present and 9 not voting.

The two-month extension leaves state and local transportation officials in the lurch as they plan for the balance of the summer construction season and ponder whether to embark on long-term projects that require the certainty of federal funding, the Washington Post reported.