The Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee signed off Thursday on a Republican-backed transportation proposal that would boost vehicle title fees by $95 and raise car registration costs.
The plan also looks to clamp down on the level of security and protection Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes can receive and adopts language that would impact local governments’ ability to regulate quarries, where materials are mined for transportation and other projects.
The proposal, which passed on an 11-5 vote over opposition from Democrats and GOP Sen. Duey Stroebel, doesn’t include the gas tax hike Gov. Tony Evers sought in his budget proposal and instead relies largely on fee increases to generate new revenue.
Stroebel, R-Saukville, was the second Republican senator to express opposition to the plan; his "no" vote followed a statement from Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, who came out against the proposal a few hours ahead of the vote.
"Overall, I'm very happy with how the budget is developing. I don't have a lot of faith in our transportation secretary, who used to be a road builder lobbyist," Stroebel told reporters, referencing Secretary Craig Thompson, who used to work at the Transportation Development Association.
In all, the Republican agreement would generate $393 million in additional revenue through a $95 title fee transfer increase, which would raise it from $69.50 to $164.50, and a $10 vehicle registration fee upper, which would raise that level from $75 to $85.
In addition, the move wouldn’t raise heavy truck fees -- Evers wanted a 27% increase -- though it would collect previously instated fees for hybrid and electric vehicles. It would also cover the costs of a new mileage-based fee study to look into charging motorists based on the distance they travel.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the action shows "Republicans are still struggling to find a sustainable solution to our transportation funding crisis."
Meanwhile, committee Democrats lamented the exclusion of a gas tax, which they characterized as the fairest way to raise new dollars for roads, and championed Evers’ original plan as a sustainable and long-term solution.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, said relying on fee increases would hurt low-income individuals and failed to take into account a person’s ability to pay. Instead, she said, the fees could’ve been based on a car’s age or worth.
“If you are forced to pay those excessive fees to drive, it’s a tax. It’s a tax,” she said. “The more ridiculous thing is it’s a tax on Wisconsinites.”
Evers’ budget plan would have raised the 32.9-cent gas tax by 8 cents a gallon. Evers also wanted to again index the tax to the consumer price index beginning in spring 2020. The gas tax was previously indexed to inflation, though the state put a stop to the practice in 2005.
But Republicans countered relying on a gas tax increase isn’t feasible as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.
“Every study says it’s not sustainable,” Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said of the gas tax. “We’ve got to figure something out.”
In all, the GOP plan included $393 million in additional revenue for transportation, as well as a $90 million one-time transfer from the general fund, on top of the $88 million that would already be transferred in the next two years.
The plan would also include $326 million in bonding over the next two years, less than the $338 million in Evers’ proposal. Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, said before the vote the figure amounted to the lowest level since the 2001-03 budget.
Evers’ budget proposal sought to generate $623.8 million in revenue over the biennium, with the bulk of it — $529.5 million — stemming from a gas tax hike and indexing the level to the consumer price index.
Both the GOP proposal and Evers’ plan would provide similar levels of additional funding for state highways, though Republicans are looking to spend less on southeastern Wisconsin megaprojects.
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, touted the road projects included in the plan, saying Republicans “match the governor in a lot of areas.”
“This motion fixes more damn roads than his (Evers’) does,” he said, referencing the governor’s comments to reporters Monday.
The plan would also create a new office within the Department of Transportation on innovative program delivery that would facilitate a process whereby multiple designs for a project are presented for consideration; and push the agency to pilot awarding contracts on “design-build” methods for highways projects.
The proposal also contained other nuggets, including language that would limit State Patrol protection dollars spent for Barnes’ safety and security in the upcoming biennium based on what was spent in the 2017-19 budget under former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
The move comes after WisPolitics.com last month reported Barnes had nine times more hours of security protection in the first two months of his term than Kleefisch did all of last year.
The quarry provisions within the plan are similar to a GOP-backed initiative that was included in the current biennial budget and received opposition from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Then-Gov. Scott Walker vetoed it.
Ahead of the vote, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said he doesn't support it, slamming it as "a big loss for taxpayers,” and lamented the lack of "accountability or reform measures" in it.
"These key factors are jeopardizing my support for the 2019-21 biennial budget," he said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, though, said in a statement "additional reform measures" surrounding transportation will be introduced as well.
The committee actions came after a group of Republican senators on Wednesday unveiled their plan to spend $134 million in one-time money for local road aids, a proposal Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Vos, R-Rochester, said should be looked at outside of the transportation budget.
Also Thursday, committee members earlier in the evening voted to add nine positions at the State Crime Lab to increase digital forensic services provided to local law enforcement and boost testing capacity in the state. Evers sought 14 additional positions, as well as three extra posts for bolstering digital forensic services for local law enforcement and improve the state’s response to digital crimes.
Law enforcement agencies and district attorneys offices statewide rely on the crime lab to process evidence they need to prosecute cases. If that process takes too long, it can compromise investigations and prosecutions.
How well the crime lab works has also been a focus as the state continues to test backlogged sexual assault kits. The lab has been charged with testing those kits, thousands of which have been stored on shelves in law enforcement agencies statewide, while continuing to process evidence and DNA from current crime cases.
The committee also agreed to Evers’ plan to spend $2 million in general purpose revenue over the biennium for the treatment alternatives and diversion program, which provide alternatives to prosecution and incarceration for those who have drug and alcohol abuse issues.
And members voted to give assistant attorneys general a 2 percent raise each year of the biennium, as Evers had proposed. The budget committee previously approved raises for district attorneys and the State Public Defender.
The raises would be go into effect Jan. 1, 2020 and 2021.