Graham Kilmer

Have Republicans Put Milwaukee Transit On Chopping Block?

Milwaukee legislators oppose move by GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee.

By - Jun 14th, 2023 06:43 pm

MCTS Battery Electric Bus. Photo Courtesy of MCTS.

Republican lawmakers on the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee have their Democratic colleagues gravely concerned about the future of transit.

The Republican-controlled committee approved a budget motion Tuesday that moved state funding for public transit out of the segregated Transportation Fund and into the General Purpose Revenue Fund in the state budget.

What sounds like a procedural move has rattled Democratic legislators. Specifically, it could put transit funding in competition with other budget priorities, setting it up for future cuts.

This move comes as the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) finds itself perilously circling the drain. The system has begun warning that its long-term funding imbalance is going to lead to a massive budget deficit of approximately $25 million or more in 2025 when federal stimulus funds released during the COVID-19 pandemic run out.

If in the future state transit funding is competing with other state budget priorities, it means the MCTS budget is in direct competition with state funding for K-12 education or healthcare. In 2023, MCTS received approximately $65.5 million in mass transit operating assistance or about 60% of all such funding from the state, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a non-partisan think tank.

State and federal funding comprises nearly 70% of the 2023 MCTS budget, and the biggest piece of that funding is mass transit operating assistance, which is what Republican legislators are moving into the state budget’s general fund.

The state has placed funding for public transit in a segregated fund for transportation since 1973, according to staff from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. “I think advocates, business leaders, etc. need to be well aware that if there are cuts in future budgets” mass transit operating assistance has a “less certain future by removing their appropriation from the transportation account,” State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said.

Why transit belongs in transportation is a tough one I guess,” Goyke said.

Another Milwaukee legislator on the committee, State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), said, “We all know how we like to cut things in this committee. We’ve had a whole night of proof of how we like to cut stuff.”

The senator warned her colleagues on the other side of the committee table that cuts to transit will hurt the business community, making it harder for employers to find workers that can access their jobs. “For larger transportation companies, if they can’t make ends meet they cut routes,” she said. “And once those routes are cut, individuals can’t get to their jobs; if they can’t get to their jobs, employers can’t fill those positions.”

MCTS is in the midst of a public awareness campaign based on this exact message. It recently reported the 16 routes it would likely have to cut if the budget deficit projected for 2025 is not closed. “This is what is has come to,” said Donna Brown-Martin, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT). “There is nowhere else to cut.”

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) called the move a “ticking time bomb for state support of Milwaukee’s bus system.”

The motion by Republican legislators does include a 2% increase in mass transit operating aid for each year of the biennial budget. Though, Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee were not impressed. State Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) called the small increase “a few rainbow sprinkles on a big pile of manure.” State Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) held up the 2% increase and said his Democratic colleagues were engaging in a “fair amount of gloom and doom,” though he did not address concerns that mass transit aid would be in direct conflict with other budget priorities.

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One thought on “Transportation: Have Republicans Put Milwaukee Transit On Chopping Block?”

  1. Alan Bartelme says:

    Vos is already on the record stating that transit is the same as welfare, and we know the GOP hates welfare. So let’s not pretend that the GOP has anything in mind other than cutting transit funding in the near future.

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