On the question of using Wisconsin’s credit card to pay for roads, state Senate Republicans have come a long way in less than two years.
In November 2015, Senate Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee made a stand against new borrowing, voting against a $350 million borrowing package for roads and saying the state’s transportation debt levels were unsustainable. But the new Senate GOP budget plan unveiled Tuesday relies on more than twice that amount — $712 million in borrowing to fund road and bridge projects.
Even the committee’s Senate vice chairman, Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, acknowledged the shift in a Wednesday interview.
“It’s a little inconsistent with our past actions; you’re exactly right,” Olsen said.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Tuesday that he’s confused by the Senate’s “complete 180” on transportation borrowing.
“The Senate seems to have completely reversed course,” Steineke said.
The Senate’s proposed $712 million borrowing figure tops Gov. Scott Walker’s call for $500 million in road borrowing. Assembly Republicans have said the state shouldn’t borrow more for roads at all without new revenue to pay for it.
The dispute over transportation spending is fueling a stalemate on writing a new 2017-19 state budget, which was due July 1. Walker met with legislative leaders Wednesday for further discussions after the Senate on Tuesday unveiled a full spending plan in an effort to nudge along negotiations.
On Wednesday, attention turned to the November 2015 vote on the $350 million borrowing package, passed with support of Democrats and Assembly Republicans, who expressed concern then over the borrowing amount but said a better solution would be needed in future years.
During debate then, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chairwoman of the budget-writing committee, said the time had come for a “sustainable solution” for transportation funding.
Another Republican member of the committee, Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green, urged colleagues in 2015 to find a solution other than borrowing.
“I do not believe we should be going further into debt when we haven’t created any new sources of revenue to make the payments,” Marklein said in a November 2015 statement.
Speaking Wednesday, Marklein said that, starting in 2019, he believes the state will be able to tap more revenues from an existing 2-cent petroleum inspection fee to pay for transportation projects. Bonds that have been paid off with those revenues will be retired in 2019, Marklein said. He acknowledged lawmakers and the governor would need to direct the revenues to transportation, potentially in the 2019-21 budget.
Also in November 2015, another Republican on the committee, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, told WJFW-TV that he was concerned by the state’s borrowing level for transportation.
“We’re getting up to where we’re about 20 cents on the dollar that’s going to debt service now for transportation,” he said. “That’s getting too high.”
Tiffany said at the time that he was open to new revenue for transportation. The most likely source would be increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees, but Walker has said he opposes that. Assembly Republicans briefly floated a new fee on heavy trucks earlier this month, but a group of Senate Republicans and industry groups quickly shot it down.
Assembly Republicans have maintained new transportation revenue is needed, though Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said earlier this month that he has accepted it likely won’t happen in the next budget.
Tiffany said last week that he now doesn’t believe new transportation revenues are needed in the next budget.
What has changed since 2015, Tiffany said, is that lower energy costs are reducing the cost of road projects. That will enable the state Department of Transportation to complete more road work with the same amount of funding, Tiffany predicted.
“I am more confident now than I was two years ago that we will continue to see significant savings in putting out these projects,” Tiffany said.
Darling could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. At Tuesday’s press conference announcing the Senate plan, Darling defended borrowing as a legitimate way to fund road projects — especially massive, billion-dollar freeway expansions and reconstructions in southeast Wisconsin. She said such freeways are built to last for 30 or 40 years, so it makes sense for taxpayers to pay for them over a period of decades.
“It is impossible to pay for those projects in cash. We have never done that, and it’s not smart to do that,” Darling said. “It’s going to cost us more to delay (projects) than to borrow.”
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, blasted her Senate Republican counterparts for their reversal in a Wednesday statement.
“This budget debacle has proven once again that Republicans can’t be trusted,” Shilling said. “Rather than doing their job, Senate Republicans continue to mislead the public and flip-flop on their promises whenever it’s politically convenient.”