A lengthy hearing at the state Capitol Tuesday offered a preview of what’s likely to be a contentious battle next spring over the future of transportation funding in the state.
The Assembly Transportation Committee held a day-long informational hearing on a budget proposal released this fall by the state Department of Transportation. The proposal, which will help guide Governor Scott Walker in writing the budget he puts out next spring, calls for delaying several road projects around the state and using borrowing to close a $1 billion hole in the state’s transportation fund. It also puts a greater focus on preserving existing roads and bridges, rather than expanding the system.
State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, argued the plan amounts to a “disinvestment” in Wisconsin roads, after factoring in the increasing amount of money the state will have to spend paying off the debt for what it borrow to fund roads.
Nygren is among several Assembly Republicans who contend the state should explore all options to increase revenue for roads, including a hike in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees. Governor Scott Walker and several members of the Senate GOP oppose any increases.
DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb spent more than three hours explaining the plan and defending it, arguing that it is based on the instructions laid out by the governor. “The governor has made a determination that he does not think this is the right time to raise taxes or fees on Wisconsin families or businesses,” he said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle repeatedly argued the current plan being considered will leave Wisconsin’s infrastructure worse-off than it currently is after the next two-year budget cycle is done, while creating a higher price tag for the future. “By putting these things off, which I think everybody agrees are needed for both public safety and commerce, we are increasing our cost,” argued Rep. Robb Kahl, a Monona Democrat.
Lawmakers also heard testimony from local government leaders. While many of them praised the proposal for including an increase in local aid programs, their testimony was often tempered with warnings about trying to keep up with already poor road conditions in their communities. “For many years we’ve been asked to do more with less, and we have done that,” said Ashland Mayor Deb Lewis. “But we are at the bare bones level, we’ve been pushing the rock up the hill for a long time…and we’re tired.”