Gov. Scott Walker is holding firm on his commitment to passing a budget with no gas tax or vehicle registration fee increases while some lawmakers are urging him to leave those options open.
Walker made the case for his administration's transportation proposal on Tuesday during his State of the State address.
The plan, introduced in September, would cut funding for state highway programs while providing more money for local roads and existing highways, delay some major projects and authorize $500 million in new bonding.
Addressing a joint meeting of the state Assembly and Senate, Walker touted the proposal as one that focuses on safety and maintenance while upping the state's contribution to local governments.
"Altogether this budget represents a 39 percent increase in maintenance and safety over my predecessor's last transportation budget. We can do all of this — and more — without a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase," Walker said. "I will keep the promise I made to the voters in the last election. Whether you agree with me or not, I hope you can respect that I will keep my word. I just believe firmly we were not sent here by the people of Wisconsin to raise taxes."
The proposal from the state Department of Transportation would cut $447.4 million from state highway programs while offering an additional $69.7 million for maintenance and an additional $65 million for local roads.
It would authorize $500 million in new bonding — significantly less than the record $1.3 billion Walker proposed in his 2015-17 budget, and still down from what was ultimately approved by the Joint Finance Committee and signed into law. The budget ultimately authorized $500 million in bonding and an additional $350 million to be allocated by the Joint Finance Committee in response to DOT work requests.
Senate Republicans have praised it, while Assembly Republicans say it delays too many projects and doesn't offer a long-term solution to a projected $1 billion shortfall.
Democrats in both chambers have been content to let the other party debate the issue, arguing Republicans have had control of state government for the last six years and haven't found a sustainable funding solution.
Walker pushed back on that narrative in his speech.
"We invested more than $18 billion into our state transportation system over the past six years. That's about $2 billion more than the previous administration did during the same time period," he said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said all the points Walker made in his speech were "true facts" but didn't address the "breadth of the problem."
"I understand that he has taken a no tax increase pledge, and that is the preferred option for all of us, but I also think it’s not responsible for us to take part of the equation off the table until we see the breadth of the problem," Vos told reporters after the speech. "I want to just keep all options on the table."
Asked what Democrats would like to see in a transportation budget, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, told reporters she would like to remind Republicans they have been in charge for the last six years.
"We will take a look at what they come up with, but obviously we are seeing some real strains within their own caucus on this," Shilling said, adding that Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee joined Assembly Republicans in 2015 to approve $350 million in transportation borrowing when Senate Republicans voted against it.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, added that Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee introduced a proposal, shot down by Republicans, during the last budget to reinstate the annual indexing of the state's gas tax.
Asked whether Assembly Democrats would be willing to join Republicans to give them the votes needed to pass a transportation funding package with a gas tax increase, Barca said it would depend what was in it.
"We want to make sure they don't continue the kind of regressive tax policies that they've put forward, that just helps those at the top and really hurts people at the bottom," Barca said.
Walker has promised to veto any budget that contains a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase without a corresponding decrease elsewhere.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said on WKOW-TV's "Capital City Sunday" last weekend that lawmakers may consider eliminating the state utility tax to accomplish that.
Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans are considering other approaches, but did not elaborate.