We Hate DOT, But Here’s $712 Million
GOP senators would borrow big for Department of Transportation they distrust.
If legislators believe the state Department of Transportation (DOT) has wasted tax dollars and been mismanaged for years, why did Senate Republicans last week want to borrow $712 million more for that agency to spend on highways over the next two years?
First, some background. Per-year Transportation Fund spending grew 21 percent (from $1.61 billion to $1.93 billion) in the last decade. Inflation raised prices nationally about 15 percent over the same period.
And, to pay for that 10-year jump in spending without raising taxes or fees, borrowing for transportation programs – by Republican and Democratic governors – totaled $4.4 billion. Transportation borrowing in the last six years, on the watch of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, totaled $2.5 billion.
The fight between Republicans who control the Capitol over new borrowing is delaying approval of the next state budget. Last week, Senate Republicans recommended borrowing $712 million more over the next two years for highways.
Assembly Republicans refused to put $712 million more on the state’s credit card. Instead, they accepted Walker’s offer to use $204 million the governor had set aside for income tax cuts for highways. It was unclear how much more – if any – DOT would be allowed to borrow for highway projects through mid-2019.
Many Republicans said the 10-year increases – in spending and borrowing – came despite DOT’s waste of money and mismanagement.
So, half of all Republican legislators are sponsoring a bill to give DOT four new highway-construction finance options, set new regional criteria for roads, appoint an inspector general to investigate agency waste and fraud, require local governments to approve construction of new roundabouts and prohibit local wheel taxes, unless they are approved by voters in a referendum.
Those changes, and requiring DOT to lay off 200 highway-design engineers over the next two years, are part of the state budget drafted by Republican senators.
“This bill will restore taxpayer confidence in an agency that has strayed from the sound fiscal and good-government principles we expect,” said Rep. Joe Sanfelippo.
“After demonstrating a poor use of taxpayer dollars, substantial reform is essential at the DOT,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga.
“These are necessary changes that together can realize significant savings and result in more road per dollar without raising taxes,” added Sen. David Craig.
Speaking for Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the $712 million was needed to continue work on the state’s busiest highways – so-called “megaprojects”– in southeast Wisconsin. They include finishing the Zoo Interchange west of Milwaukee, designing a new I-94 East-West Freeway between Miller Park and State Fair Park in Milwaukee, and rebuilding I-94 in Racine County.
The $712 million “keeps those projects going,” Fitzgerald said.
Senate Republicans won’t commit to anything beyond that, however.
“As we look at DOT,” Fitzgerald told reporters, “there are a lot of (Senate Republicans) that talk to me: ‘Listen, we’re not comfortable putting more money – no increases in revenue – into that agency until we feel comfortable with that agency and decisions DOT is making’.”
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, cochair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, also said it’s cheaper to borrow to continue work on those Milwaukee-area megaprojects, instead of slowing or stopping construction. Wisconsin’s economy depends on those freeways, she added.
Assembly Republicans have floated several trial-balloons with ideas to raise more money for DOT – all shot down by Walker and Senate Republicans.
Those ideas included raising the 30.9-cent per gallon gas tax or the $75 annual vehicle registration fee, dialing back the required minimum markup on gas, charging the 5 percent sales tax on gasoline sales and adding surtax on miles traveled by heavy trucks.
The Senate Republican budget does not include any steps toward tolling major highways, although it is supported by many legislators. Although tolling could raise billions of dollars, it would take years – and a change in federal law – to approve. Reconfiguring highways to start tolling would also be costly.
For their part, Democratic legislators have watched the transportation funding crisis develop over six years without having to offer ideas to solve it.
It would be “pretty stupid” of Democrats to offer solutions “when we’ve never been invited to the (negotiating) table in the first place,” said Democratic Sen Jon Erpenbach, a Joint Finance Committee member. So they haven’t.