Madison— GOP lawmakers want to cut Gov. Scott Walker’s borrowing plan by $300 million, but the only way to do that may be to cut highway projects.
The GOP governor proposed borrowing a record $1.3 billion for transportation over the next two years, but Republicans who control the Legislature have groused at the plan, saying they want a long-term solution to how to fund roads.
This week, they floated the idea of raising vehicle registration fees to bring down bonding levels. Walker, who is preparing to launch his presidential campaign, all but ruled out that idea.
“A vehicle registration fee, you have no choice,” Walker told reporters Thursday at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. “If you want to drive, you have to pay it. And to me, if you don’t have a choice, it’s a tax.
“And, so, unless it’s offset somewhere else, which I don’t see any realistic path to that — to me, I think adding new revenues, whether it’s a gas tax or vehicle registration fee, I think that goes at odds with what I said during the campaign.”
Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said state officials needed to find new revenue and set borrowing at a “responsible level.” If they don’t, he said, the likely outcome will be project delays around the state.
“I don’t understand how it is a conservative ideology to borrow ourselves into the debt that is being proposed,” he said.
Hiking the gas tax is off the table for Republicans. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told the Transportation Development Association on Wednesday that he didn’t believe there were the votes in his house to do that.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has similarly opposed boosting the gas tax, writing a February column on his website that it was a “nonstarter in the state Senate” and would be a “terrible blow to Wisconsin’s middle-class families.”
But legislative leaders saw a potential opening for helping to pay for roads by increasing vehicle registration fees. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said Wednesday lawmakers were looking at increases of $25 to $35.
That would raise the $75 annual fee on an automobile to between $100 and $110, or as much as 47%. Current fees on light trucks range from $75 to $106, depending on their weight.
A $25 fee increase on automobiles and light trucks would raise $204 million over two years. A $35 hike would raise $285 million.
That would go a long way to achieving a key goal of lawmakers — cutting transportation bonding from $1.3 billion to $1 billion.
That would put borrowing for roads in line with the level legislators set two years ago. At that time, Walker and legislators approved borrowing $991 million for transportation — an amount they said then they believed was unsustainable.
But with Walker’s latest stance opposing registration fees, lawmakers have few options. One of the few is cutting projects.
Legislators have said they are open to that idea in general, but they have not talked specifically about what they might cut. Delaying or dropping projects could stir up a parochial fight, with lawmakers happy to cut projects but only if they’re in an area far from their districts.
A debate over cutting projects comes at a time when a series of costly projects are underway or planned in southeastern Wisconsin. Work continues on the Zoo Interchange and the Hoan Bridge, and Walker has repeatedly promised to keep the Zoo Interchange on schedule.
If highway spending were reduced, the Transportation Department has said there could be two-year delays for I-39/90 from the Illinois state line to Madison; Highways 10 and 441 in the Fox Valley; Highway 15 in Outagamie County; and Highways 18 and 151 in Madison. There also could be a one-year delay for Highway 23 in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties, according to the agency.
Patrick Marley reported from Madison and Mary Spicuzza from Milwaukee.