The Republican leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature's budget-writing committee are open to considering transportation funding as a separate bill from the biennial budget, they said Thursday — but the idea met immediate resistance from Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
"I have suggested that, because I think that if we take it out, do it now, put options on the table, it could help. Transportation should be a bipartisan effort," Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters.
Darling was quick to note the idea hadn't been agreed to by Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, or Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
A spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker quickly dismissed it.
"There’s no reason why they can’t get this done through the normal budget process, especially at a time when we’re seeing higher than expected revenues thanks to our reforms," Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email. "If the Legislature wants to provide more money for transportation, then the governor is willing to work with them on that so long as we’re not raising taxes."
Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he thinks a separate transportation bill is a "possible idea," and said Fitzgerald and Vos had discussed the option during a meeting on Wednesday.
Vos on Thursday reiterated a point he made Wednesday: if a deal isn't brokered, the transportation budget would be funded at base levels, meaning no new money would go toward addressing project delays.
"I’m more than willing to negotiate on the transportation budget, but if we can’t come to an agreement, it means we stay at current law," Vos said in a statement.
Transportation funding did come up during a previously scheduled meeting between the Republican leaders to discuss bills before the Legislature, Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said.
"Senator Fitzgerald does not favor taking the transportation budget up separately and would strongly advocate for avoiding this approach," Tanck said in an email.
The ongoing debate over how to fund transportation hit another roadblock on Wednesday, when Fitzgerald said he doesn't see momentum in the Senate for an Assembly proposal that would cut the state's gas tax and apply a sales tax, reduce the minimum markup on fuel and put the state on track for a flat 4 percent income tax.
Senate Republicans are interested in financing some roads borrowing with general purpose revenue, Fitzgerald said. Nygren said he thinks that's the "wrong direction."
"At least we all kind of have a clear understanding of where people are at," Nygren said Thursday. "Obviously we’re pretty far apart, but at least it’s a step in the process."
The Joint Finance Committee dropped the governor's transportation proposal from the 2017-19 budget last month, signaling the committee would essentially build its own proposal from a blank slate. Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, unveiled the Assembly GOP plan earlier this month.
Walker'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.
Kooyenga's plan called for cutting down the proposed bonding by $300 million, funded by applying the sales tax to fuel sales.
"The governor’s transportation budget ironically strikes a middle ground between the Senate and Assembly," Evenson said. "It has the lowest amount of bonding since the 2001-03 budget and it provides significantly more for our local roads, bridges, and highways without raising taxes."
Darling said she gives Kooyenga "a lot of credit" for offering a proposal, and said it's up to the Senate to offer its own suggestions now.
"I’m confident we’ll come up with a solution to transportation. It’s not going to be easy, so I’m not going to sugarcoat it," Darling said. "It’s our job to get something on the table with the Assembly, and we will."
Both Darling and Nygren said there's no reason Democrats and Republicans shouldn't be able to work together to reach a solution.
Asked about the possibility of a separate transportation bill, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, noted that Shilling and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, asked earlier this month for Republican leaders to create a joint committee dedicated to transportation financing.