Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the possibility of collecting a new fee on heavy trucks emerged Wednesday in his budget talks with Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he’s not sure if Republican senators support the concept, adding they need to learn more about it. That marks a shift from just a day earlier, when Fitzgerald dismissed the proposal, offered by GOP state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, as a “nonstarter.”
The concept is the latest to be entertained by state leaders as they attempt to craft the state’s next budget. July 1 is when the budget is supposed to be passed and take effect, a deadline Walker and lawmakers now appear certain to miss.
At least four other states collect heavy truck fees, and such a proposal could generate hundreds of millions in new revenue for roads. But it also would meet strong opposition from some of the state’s most powerful business groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. A lobbyist for the group, Scott Manley, slammed the proposal Wednesday as “punitive and unfair.”
“For a state that grows and produces as much as we do, it really provides a significant disincentive to produce more,” Manley said of the concept.
Still, Wednesday’s developments hinted at possible progress in budget talks. Contrast that with a day earlier, when Assembly-Senate negotiations broke down and Vos and Fitzgerald vented their frustrations to reporters, each calling the other’s budget positions “laughable.”
“It feels like things are kind of moving a little bit compared to what we saw yesterday,” Fitzgerald told reporters Wednesday.
Vos, R-Rochester, also was more optimistic Wednesday that a deal could be reached, saying the two Republican caucuses are “closer than we have been.”
Transportation is the biggest sticking point in budget talks, with Vos and Assembly Republicans maintaining the state needs a long-term revenue infusion to pay for road projects. Other issues still unresolved include how to boost funding for K-12 schools and how to cut taxes.
Walker has said he opposes increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees, the two main state funding sources for transportation, and would veto a gas tax hike if lawmakers pass one. Fitzgerald and Senate Republicans have said they won’t back either of those options because Walker won’t.
Opposing views on fee
Manley said the truck fee concept discussed by Walker and GOP legislative leaders would be collected on a per-mile basis for heavy trucks traveling on Wisconsin roads. It could generate more than $130 million a year for state roads and bridges, he said. Those figures were not confirmed independently by Walker’s office or legislative leaders.
Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist for the state’s DRIVE Coalition, a group representing business, tourism and agriculture interests that advocates for more funding for roads, said he was heartened by the truck fee discussion.
“Every credible study says our roads and bridges are some of the worst in the country, and the only way we’re going to address those is to generate new revenue,” McCoshen said.
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If lawmakers don’t find more money for roads, it could mean delays to large highway projects under construction or scheduled for future construction.
Instead of new revenues, Walker has proposed $500 million in borrowing, and Fitzgerald, $850 million in borrowing, to fund road projects. But Vos and Assembly Republicans object to that approach, saying it’s unwise to put more on the state’s credit card. On Tuesday, Vos said the Assembly Republicans’ position was to refuse to discuss additional borrowing without also discussing ways to boost revenue.
But some Senate Republicans aren’t sold on the need for new revenue. Fitzgerald said Wednesday that many GOP senators think cost-saving measures must be weighed at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“There’s still a lot of people that think DOT is an agency that needs significant reform,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans also will meet with the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to run through the state budget and develop positions on unresolved issues such as transportation, K-12 and taxes.
He stopped short of saying that means Senate Republicans will buck the traditional budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, the mechanism through which the state budget typically is crafted, and pass their own budget instead. Fitzgerald has raised that possibility in recent weeks.
Vos said Wednesday that Assembly Republicans are not considering crafting their own budget.
If there is no new budget in place by July 1, the start of the state fiscal year, funding levels from the previous budget continue until a new one is passed.
Legislative leaders also have discussed highway tolling as a potential revenue source. But even if lawmakers approved it and secured a federal nod to start tolling Wisconsin’s U.S. Interstates, tolls likely wouldn’t be collected for at least four years — meaning they wouldn’t have an impact for the next state budget, covering the two-year period from July 2017 through June 2019.
Districts in a bind
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Wednesday after a meeting with Walker and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, that he predicted budget discussions to drag out weeks or months.
Even though funding levels continue uninterrupted without a new state budget, school districts particularly will be left in an uncertain situation, he said, because districts typically make hiring decisions in spring and summer for the upcoming school year.
“It’s not an easy scenario for them to deal with,” Barca said.
Meanwhile, a Marquette Law School Poll released Wednesday found 23 percent of respondents ranked transportation as their top priority for increased state spending, ranking third behind K-12 education (37 percent) and health coverage (25 percent). Other responses included local aid (5 percent), prisons (4 percent) and the University of Wisconsin System (3 percent).
Among Republicans, transportation was the top priority. Among Democrats and independents the top priority was K-12 education.
State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.