Of all the state agencies set to submit biennial budget requests to Gov. Scott Walker’s office this week, Transportation promises to get the most attention. A projected $1 billion deficit in the department’s budget coupled with what many see as deteriorating road conditions throughout the state mean officials are under pressure to come up with a fix.
But that fix has proved elusive as state Republicans continue to debate methods of closing the budget gap. On Sunday, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, reiterated his concerns about continuing to borrow money to rebuild the state’s highways.
“In my position, it’s less responsible to continue to borrow for our roads for the future rather than looking to pay for them (with) a true user fee,” said Nygren, who appeared on "UpFront with Mike Gousha" Sunday morning.
Gov. Scott Walker has said he won’t approve any tax increases or fees and leadership in the state Senate has sided with him.
But Nygren rejected the narrative that one side of the roads debate is only in favor of hiking taxes while the other is only looking to borrow money, insisting that the solution is complicated and public input is necessary.
“In some states, they’ve looked to advertising at rest areas. There’s even some states that have looked at privatizing their highway system. My position is that all options should be on the table, whether it be reducing the number of projects we’re putting forward, whether it be looking at a savings and reforms,” Nygren said. “And potentially we should also have a conversation with the citizens of Wisconsin about our revenue going forward.”
In an Aug. 10 Marquette University Law School Poll, 43 percent of respondents favored increasing gas taxes or registration fees to maintain projects while 33 percent favored cutting spending to avoid tax hikes. Twelve percent said they supported borrowing most or all of the nearly $1 billion to maintain current taxes and projects.
Nygren added that there isn’t a lot of data on which to base analysis of public sentiment on specific solutions for transportation funding, but one solution continues to emerge: tolls.
“We don’t have a lot of polling done on transportation funding, but the only one that we do see that gets over 50 percent approval is tolling,” Nygren said. “It would take a longer time to implement tolling because it would take congressional approval to be able to do that. So that’s not an immediate fix.”
Nygren also pointed to an audit of the state highway program from the Legislative Audit Bureau, due later this year or early in 2017, that could help move the discussion along.