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Marinette Joint Finance

Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, held a public hearing on the budget at Marinette High School on Friday.

MARINETTE — How to fund Wisconsin's roads continues to be the most pressing question for state lawmakers on the Legislature's budget committee, as they hold the final public hearing on the budget here. 

"Transportation’s going to be the biggest challenge. I think everything is on the table right now," Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters Friday.

More than 100 people were signed up Friday morning to testify at the committee's public hearing at Marinette High School, the last of six public events where legislators sought input on Gov. Scott Walker's proposed two-year spending plan. 

The governor's $76.1 billion budget would have allocated about $6.1 billion for transportation funding, including a $40 million increase in general transportation aids to counties and municipalities. The proposal included $500 million in borrowing.

But the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee dropped the governor's transportation proposal from the budget earlier this month, an unusual move signaling the committee will essentially build its own proposal from a blank slate. 

Lawmakers are tasked with executing a "balancing act," Darling said.

While Walker said his proposal focused on safety and maintenance, Assembly Republicans argued it didn't offer a long-term fix, and have called for a $300 million revenue hike offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere.

Walker last month promised to veto a gas tax increase in any case. He has said throughout the months-long debate over transportation funding that he would veto a gas tax hike or vehicle registration fee increase without a corresponding tax cut somewhere else.

"Originally, the governor had said if we could find additional revenues for transportation and were able to offset them with tax cuts in other places in the budget, he would be supportive of that. He has changed his position since then, but we are working with that original framework," said Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. "We believe we can get there."

Nygren said he and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, are working together on a transportation proposal they plan to release "pretty soon."

Tom Westlund, owner of Westlund Bus Lines in Marinette, urged lawmakers on the committee to support a gas tax increase. 

Westlund operates school buses in the Marinette and Brillion school districts and coach buses throughout northeastern Wisconsin. He praised the condition of Interstate 41 in northeastern Wisconsin, but said there are "many, many more roads" throughout the state in need of attention.

"We do need to increase our fuel tax," Westlund said. "That’s not, probably, a fact that a lot of people like to see, but we do need to increase that so we can get onto these projects without borrowing money into the future, and the cost to us will be more and we’ll get less."

Rick Stadelman, former executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, echoed Westlund's call, noting the state has not raised the gas tax since 2006, the year after the state stopped annually adjusting it for inflation.

Stadelman urged lawmakers to "be bold in this budget" and support a revenue boost.

As lawmakers have traveled the state, Nygren said, they have heard about funding needs for county and town roads more than major highways. But Darling noted her district includes unfinished state highway and interstate mega projects.

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"We need to have a long-term vision, we need to put that in place and build toward meeting that vision, because we can’t let the major highways not be completed because it’s just going to cost us more," Darling said. "Delays will cost more, repairs will cost more, and transportation is our lifeblood to safety and jobs. That’s true all over the state."

Democrats on the committee say Walker has failed to lead on transportation, arguing his proposal does not offer long-term solutions.

"The governor is either going to have to bite the bullet and realize we will have to raise the gas tax or fees, but hopefully a tax instead of a fee, or we keep doing what we’re doing when it comes to roads — and that's not going to work," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

The governor has said he is open to a variety of funding options as long as they don't include a gas tax.

Walker said last week he would be able to direct another $100 million to transportation projects in the 2017-19 budget, drawn from savings from lower fuel prices and more competitive bids on projects. 

That announcement came months after a legislative audit that found the state Department of Transportation had significantly underestimated the costs of major highway projects and did not do all it could to manage expenses.

That audit also found the percentage of the state's 11,758 miles of state highways rated in good condition declined from 53.5 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2015.

DOT Secretary Dave Ross told the committee last month that Walker's proposal exemplified "accountable and efficient government," describing it as a "significant" investment that "reallocates resources where they’re most needed." The state should focus on completing active highway construction and not start any new projects that might not qualify for matching federal funds, he said.

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