Assembly Speaker Robin Vos acknowledged Wednesday the overdue state budget won’t include new revenue for roads — money he has sought to erase a nearly $1 billion dollar transportation funding gap.
But he said Senate Republicans, who have been at odds for months with Assembly Republicans over road spending, must now accept that not raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees means the state also can’t borrow more for transportation.
Vos, R-Rochester, said coming to a deal on the 2017-19 spending plan hinges on each chamber accepting each others’ “reality.”
“The budget is in worse shape than the federal budget, and the deficit in the transportation fund is way too high. And we are not able to pay for the projects that are necessary by continuing to bond, because that just makes a bad situation worse,” Vos said after meeting with Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
“I have accepted the reality that they don’t want to raise revenue. They need to accept the reality that we’re not going to borrow and spend. We could be together fairly quickly if everybody could accept everybody else’s reality.”
But Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, fired back on a conservative talk radio show Wednesday, calling the idea to keep transportation funding flat “a non-starter,” and blamed Vos for the impasse.
Fitzgerald also indicated he might consider asking his members to vote on their budget package to send to the Assembly, abandoning the budget committee process, if the delay dragged on. The budget plan would include borrowing to keep roads projects on track.
“I’m not sure what his ultimate strategy is, but what I’m trying to do is maintain the composure of the Senate ... I’m at a point now here I’ve got a fully flushed-out, completed (budget) document,” Fitzgerald said on WIBA. “I think the Senate’s in a good position and the Assembly is still searching for what their next move is.”
He said he didn’t want to introduce his own budget plan because abandoning the budget committee process could do “irreparable damage” to how future state budgets are written.
A spokeswoman for Vos did not respond to a request for comment on Fitzgerald’s statements.
Fitzgerald said his members won’t vote for any kind of tax or fee increase and because Walker has threatened to veto the entire state budget if a higher tax burden on Wisconsin residents is part of the package, the idea isn’t worth considering. He also has said bonding must be included in the budget to ensure roads projects aren’t delayed further.
“This long-time holdout that the Speaker’s been kind of touting as the only answer, I can’t see what the finish line is from his perspective,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also questioned why Vos and Assembly Republicans have put forward plans in areas like transportation and education to counter Walker’s 2017-19 state spending plan, and said he doesn’t believe the entire Assembly GOP caucus is supportive of Vos’ position on transportation.
Projects at risk
Without spending or revenue changes or new borrowing, the transportation shortfall would be nearly $1 billion for the next two years alone, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
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A scenario in which lawmakers approve a budget without new borrowing and no new revenue would spell trouble for highway work in every corner of the state. A budget with no new money or borrowing for roads likely would force sweeping delays to highway projects — including those currently under construction.
Assembly Republicans have floated several options to bolster revenue for roads — most recently, a fee on heavy trucks. But Senate Republicans and trucking and business groups shot down that idea in late June, shortly after it was proposed.
If lawmakers and the governor do not borrow or find new revenue for road projects, it likely would mean ongoing and future highway projects would be delayed or shelved.
“It wouldn’t be my first choice, which is why I think we should actually raise the revenues to pay for the projects that are important for the entire state,” Vos told reporters Wednesday. “Just continuing to run up the credit card, getting our debt to a point where it’s unsustainable isn’t a good solution either because our roads need to be fixed for the next 100 years — not just for the next couple.”
A so-called “base” budget scenario, based on last year’s transportation levels with no borrowing or new revenue, would trigger a 45 percent funding cut in the next two years for the state Department of Transportation’s major highway development program.
Two projects funded by that program are under construction now in Dane County: the Interstate 39-90 expansion from the Madison area to the Illinois state line and the Verona Road expansion from Raymond Road to McKee Road, also called Highway PD.
The southeast Wisconsin freeway megaprojects program, which funds the rebuilding and expansion of Milwaukee’s Zoo Interchange and of Interstate 94 south of Milwaukee, would take an even bigger hit. Its funding would decline by nearly 93 percent, from about $415 million in the last budget to just $30 million in the new one.
Under that scenario, Walker said in May that all four active major highway projects, including those in Dane County, would be affected.
Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said Wednesday that a base budget is “not a viable option.”
LeMahieu said the project delays that would result from that scenario would increase their costs due to inflation and other factors. He also said the state’s overall borrowing level remains low.
Still, LeMahieu conceded he doesn’t know what will end the budget stalemate.
“I’m not sure where we’re headed,” he said.
As of Wednesday, the state budget was 12 days late. There are no immediate ramifications from the stalemate because spending continues at current levels.