Republican legislative leaders remain deadlocked — even sparring publicly last week — on key parts of Wisconsin’s next state budget with just over a week left until a deadline to have the two-year spending plan in place.
The current stalemate is over how to divvy up an $800 million reduction in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for road construction. Other issues still being hammered out include how to finance construction of a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, alter parts of the tax code and change the state’s prevailing wage laws.
GOP legislative leaders were expected to meet Monday in hopes of breaking the impasse. Among the factors affected by the budget passage is Walker’s anticipated announcement of his presidential campaign. Walker has discussed making an announcement on the 2016 race next month but now is waffling on whether he will wait until he signs the state budget into law.
One of the co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Alberta Darling, said Friday that — despite public squabbling by her and other top Republican lawmakers just a day earlier — it’s still possible to pass a budget by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year.
“We have to get it done on time,” said Darling, R-River Hills.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos countered that, while he’d prefer to finish the budget this month, there’s less urgency to meet the deadline than to agree on the best possible budget.
In Wisconsin, if a new budget is not in place by June 30, funding levels in the previous budget continue until a new one is enacted.
“I’d rather take a few extra weeks and get it done right,” said Vos, R-Rochester.
The road funding issue has been particularly thorny, especially as Walker has foreclosed the possibility of raising transportation revenues such as a gas tax or vehicle registration fees without a corresponding tax or fee cut elsewhere. Republican lawmakers oppose Walker’s plan to borrow a record $1.3 billion over the next two years, especially after borrowing nearly $1 billion in the previous biennial budget for road projects.
But reducing borrowing to $500 million will mean certain projects get delayed. Road-building funds generally fall into four categories: local transportation aid to municipalities, state highway maintenance, mega-highway projects in southeast Wisconsin and major highway projects elsewhere.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has developed a proposal for how to distribute the funds but isn’t disclosing the details publicly, according to his spokeswoman, Myranda Tanck.
In a press release Thursday, Vos and Nygren criticized the Senate plan, saying legislators in rural areas and smaller communities would feel the brunt of the cuts and many don’t think it’s fair.
But Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, a budget committee member from northern Wisconsin, said he supports Fitzgerald’s approach because it distributes the cuts among the Zoo Interchange, a massive highway project in Milwaukee, and others across the state while not reducing transportation aid to municipalities.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a budget committee member, said he hadn’t seen Fitzgerald’s proposal but would prefer the reduction to be evenly split between major highway projects and southeastern mega-projects.
That approach could prove difficult as Walker’s budget includes $392.1 million in borrowing for the massive highway projects and $624.5 million in borrowing for other major highways.
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Meanwhile, Democrats blasted Republicans who control the Legislature for failing to make progress in budget talks and conducting them behind closed doors. Budget committee member Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Fitzgerald should make his transportation funding plan public.
Democrats also warned of dire safety and economic consequences from Republican leaders’ plan to slash road funding. The Verona Road/Madison Beltline highway project and the expansion of Interstate 39-90 from the Madison area to the Illinois state line are among the projects that could be delayed.
Such delays would be “devastating to our infrastructure, and it’s devastating to our construction industry,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a budget committee member.
The committee already has addressed many contentious parts of the budget, passing proposals to expand the state’s private-school voucher program, cut University of Wisconsin System funding by $250 million and change the state’s long-term care programs. Those proposals still await passage by the full Legislature. However, their endorsement by the finance committee means they’re likely to become law.
But weeks of negotiation have failed to yield breakthroughs on transportation, the Bucks arena or prevailing wage. At least two GOP senators have said they won’t vote for a budget unless it includes substantial changes to Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws, which set rates for workers on publicly funded construction projects.
Lawmakers in recent weeks have discussed various proposals to change the prevailing wage after leaders declared there aren’t enough votes to repeal the wage laws, as some conservative lawmakers hoped.
Vos said legislators have discussed exempting all local governments from the prevailing wage, but he doesn’t believe such a measure could pass the state Senate.
The tension ratcheted up Thursday when Vos and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the other joint finance co-chair, took the unusual step of issuing a public statement criticizing their fellow Republican Darling for what they described as “false statements” regarding their position on road funding.
Darling had been quoted saying Assembly GOP leaders wanted to delay the Zoo Interchange project to pressure senators to increase the gas tax or registration fees — a claim Vos and Nygren denied.
Darling responded with her own public statement standing by her remarks. Darling said any funding cuts should not delay work on the Zoo Interchange, the state’s busiest highway interchange, since such a delay would jeopardize safety and hamper the state’s economy.
“It’s a regional project of huge magnitude for our economy,” Darling said.
Vos and Nygren say sparing the Zoo Interchange from funding cuts would cause the cuts to fall disproportionately on road projects elsewhere in the state.
“Our position has been, there has to be a fair balance,” Vos said.
Hintz said Walker’s presidential aspirations have hampered the budget-writing process this year. He said Republican infighting has increased as Walker has been absent from the state Capitol, traveling across the country and abroad in advance of his anticipated presidential bid.
“The fact that the governor is running for president is riddled throughout this budget,” Hintz said.