Commerce Groups Want Highway Funding Deal
But only if legislature adopts certain changes they propose.
In a Capitol controlled by Republicans, what chambers of commerce leaders want often becomes law. That’s been true since those civic groups helped elect and re-elect Gov. Scott Walker, and grow bigger Republican majorities in the Legislature, over the last six years.
And, although it was buried in almost eight hours of Assembly Transportation Committee testimony at a by-invitation-only hearing last week, the first signs of a possible compromise on long-term transportation funding emerged.
Although they testified separately, two economic development leaders – Jason Culotta of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and Steve Baas, a senior vice president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce – drew legislators a possible road map to a long-term transportation funding compromise.
It’s one thing for legislators to flatly say, as Republican Sens. Duey Stroebel and Chris Kapenga did last week, “We did not come here to raise taxes.” And, Walker last week again repeated that he would not raise transportation fees or taxes without an offsetting cut in taxes or spending.
It’s another for lobbyists like Culotta and Baas to send this signal: We’d rethink our opposition to a tax or fee increase if it came with some specific changes.
So, it was no coincidence that Culotta and Baas listed the same five changes they’d like to see as part of any tax-and-fee raising funding compromise.
New cash is needed because the Transportation Department is more than $900 million short of paying for current highway construction and maintenance by mid-2019. The governor had WisDOT propose a budget that did not raise taxes or fees, borrowed an additional $500 million, and delayed several major highway projects.
But will voters support some kind of tax or fee increase?
“Discussion about revenue increases cannot begin with a skeptical public until cost efficiency and transparency measures are thoroughly implemented and exhausted,” said Culotta, WMC’s senior director of government relations.
Baas struck a similar theme in his testimony: “We must start by earning the public’s trust and confidence. Hard-working taxpayers cannot be asked to pay more – regardless of the form in which they are paying it – unless they can have the full confidence that we are making efficient use of the funds they are already providing.”
The five changes to achieve “efficiency and transparency” that Culotta and Baas said should be made before any taxes or fee increase:
*Repealing the “prevailing wage” law that specifies the pay of workers on state highway projects. Democrats oppose this change, saying current law protects “family-supporting” jobs.
*Amending the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act to adopt federal standards on highway construction exemptions.
*Implementing new “practical design” standards developed by WisDOT.
*Continuing the sale of excess property by the state Transportation Department – something Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told legislators is already being done.
*Consolidating federal funds “in fewer places to reduce expenses these funds incur,” Culotta said.
Culotta said WMC wants two other changes not on Baas’s list: Reversing the 2013-15 budget decision to hire more engineers and related professionals, given that the agency has 1,200 of them. And, a new way of getting workers to jobs “via a private bus system similar to school buses.”
Those last two changes may not be achievable, but probably aren’t deal-killers.
Beside gas taxes and the registration fee that together bring in 90 percent of state transportation revenue, Baas suggested legislators “look at innovative new technologies and options like tolling and other vehicle miles traveled mechanisms that are fair and accurate user fee instruments.”
At the hearing, more than 30 leaders of towns, villages, counties and cities joined officials of statewide trade and economic development groups to demand a stable, long-term transportation funding system.
And, in a state long known for making and enjoying beer, Miller/Coors made a statement that connected bad roads and beer drinking:
“All of the beer produced at the Milwaukee brewery … is shipped via truck. Thus, it is critical that we have a modern, reliable and efficient highway/road system to ensure that our beers reach our retailers and consumers.”