Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said his forthcoming budget request to Gov. Scott Walker will not propose major tax or fee increases — a move Gottlieb acknowledged would delay road expansion work and upkeep of all but the state’s most-traveled highways.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal on Wednesday, Gottlieb gave a preview of the Department of Transportation budget request he’s due to submit in September.
It will emphasize maintaining the state’s bridges and most-traveled highways instead of expanding them or preserving less-used roads, Gottlieb said.
And in an about-face from the budget he requested two years ago, it won’t outline ways to increase funding for Wisconsin roads, Gottlieb said.
“The decision about whether or not that’s enough investment in transportation — or whether additional revenues should be raised to make more investments — is a decision that the Legislature and the governor will make,” he added.
Gottlieb said his budget request, if adopted, would delay major highway projects throughout the state.
It’s too early to say which projects would be delayed and for how long, he said.
But they could include a pair of Dane County projects now underway: one that expands Verona Road near the Madison Beltline, the other expanding U.S. Interstate 39/90 from the Madison area to the Illinois state line.
In the Milwaukee area, they could include a massive rebuilding of the Zoo Interchange and an expansion of I-94 south of Milwaukee, primarily in Racine County.
The chairman of the Assembly transportation committee, Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, questioned the impact of a transportation budget such as the one Gottlieb described.
In an email statement to the State Journal, Ripp said rural districts like his own “have already been hit hard by delays” in funding in the current budget.
“We really need to be looking at long-term funding solutions before our infrastructure starts negatively affecting Wisconsin’s economic growth,” Ripp said.
More money needed to keep projects on track
A transportation-funding fix has proven elusive in recent years for Republicans who control state government. Lawmakers and Walker discussed a state road funding solution during last two budget cycles but failed to agree on one.
Instead, they have turned to borrowing and delaying projects to balance the transportation ledger.
The state budget now in effect delayed highway expansions around the state, including Verona Road and I-39/90, by a year.
Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Transportation data released last year showed the condition of Wisconsin’s roads among the nation’s worst.
Top Republican legislators, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have said they hope the 2017-19 state budget yields a fix in the form of a significant funding boost for roads. GOP lawmakers have signaled a willingness to consider increasing taxes to do so.
But Walker has held to the stance that he will not increase fuel or other transportation taxes without tax cuts of equal or greater amounts elsewhere in the budget.
Gottlieb cited Walker’s stance Wednesday in explaining why, at Walker’s direction, his request for the next transportation budget will be “revenue-neutral” — meaning it won’t propose to change the amount of transportation revenue flowing to state coffers.
Two years ago, Gottlieb led the charge for more transportation funding.
His request for the 2015-17 budget called for about $750 million in new taxes and fees, including on fuel sales and on new-vehicle purchases. Lawmakers declined to adopt those proposals.
Gottlieb said his last budget request was an anomaly because “we were specifically asked to put forward a proposal that encompassed the revenues that we thought were necessary.”
“Last biennium was the exception to the rule,” Gottlieb said.
Erpenbach: Walker ‘incredibly irresponsible’
Gottlieb said he expects to prioritize upkeep of bridges and “backbone” roads such as U.S. interstates and highways. But he acknowledged that will come at the expense of maintaining other highways.
“That non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb said.
Democratic lawmakers responded to Gottlieb’s remarks by saying they undermine Walker’s emphasis on economic growth and show Republicans aren’t serious about tackling the state’s road-funding woes.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton, the ranking Democratic member on the Legislature’s joint budget panel, said during the last budget debate, he proposed increasing the per-gallon gas tax by five cents and indexing it to inflation afterward.
Erpenbach, speaking Wednesday, called it “incredibly irresponsible” for Walker to request a transportation budget with no new revenue.
“You can’t be pro-business and turn around and say: ‘We’re not going to increase revenue for transportation even though our roads are falling apart,’ ” Erpenbach said.
Patrick Goss, a spokesman for an association representing Wisconsin road builders, said a no-new-revenue transportation budget would have implications across the state.
Reduced maintenance of certain roads could harm the state’s economy by hampering paper and agricultural producers from transporting their products, Goss said.
Speaking of Verona Road and other projects in progress, Goss said: “Every one of those projects is going to get affected.”
Editor's note: This story has been changed to more accurately reflect Gov. Walker's position on tax and fee increases.