Gov. Scott Walker has redoubled his resistance to increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees to fund Wisconsin roads, saying near-term spending on large highway expansions instead must be curtailed.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, Walker also instructed him to submit his agency's budget request by Sept. 15 instead of Nov. 15 to "allow for a full public discussion."
The letter is another sign that road funding will be among the most high-profile -- and likely contentious -- legislative issues when lawmakers reconvene in 2017.
It also underscores a deepening rift on the issue among statehouse Republicans. Republicans who control the state Assembly, led by Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna, have said more revenue likely is needed for road projects -- and that all options, including a gas tax increase, should be considered to provide it.
But Walker and some lawmakers, including state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, have resisted tax or fee increases to pay for roads, saying the state must make better use of existing resources.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald thus far has not voiced his position.
Walker has said he opposes a tax or fee increase for transportation unless it were paired with a tax decrease of equal or greater value elsewhere in the budget. Such a move appears unlikely given that projections suggest the state could face a budget deficit again next year.
The governor reiterated his position in the new letter to Gottlieb.
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"Wisconsin residents remain overtaxed," Walker wrote. "Raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees without an equal or greater reduction in taxes elsewhere is not an option."
Walker also told Gottlieb to present a budget request that seeks cost savings and minimizes spending on large road projects in southeast Wisconsin, while increasing aid for local roads and highway maintenance.
Such a budget almost certainly would trigger delays to major road projects in the Milwaukee area. It also could affect projects in Dane County, home to expansions of Verona Road, the Beltline and Interstate 39-90.
Walker's letter tells Gottlieb that proposed spending on large projects "should be prioritized based on our needs, not our wants." His letter does not specify if he favors delaying such projects or reducing their scope.
"Large needs-based projects should have their designs reviewed to save taxpayer dollars while maximizing maintenance and safety," Walker wrote.
The state relied on borrowing in its most recent budget to keep road projects on track. Walker's letter says Gottlieb should keep borrowing levels "low" in his budget request.
Assembly Republicans view continued borrowing as untenable. Vos told the Wisconsin State Journal last week that he welcomes efforts to find cost savings at the Wisconsin DOT.
But Vos said he's skeptical that, without tax or fee increases, enough savings can be found to keep the state's roads in the condition that motorists expect.
"Show me where you're going to find half-a-billion dollars in savings. That's not going to come from eliminating bike lanes," Vos said. "People are starting to say: 'Delay is not a feasible option any more.'"