A group of Republican lawmakers on Thursday introduced a package of legislative proposals aimed at making the state Department of Transportation more efficient and accountable.
The proposals, rolled into an omnibus bill, come as the majority party struggles to reach a consensus on the broader issue of how to fill a project $1 billion deficit in the transportation fund. The dispute has brought progress on the state budget, now 12 days overdue, to a halt.
While that debate centers on whether the state should borrow money or raise revenue, the lawmakers behind the "DOT Reform" bill say regardless of the budget outcome, changes are needed within the agency.
An audit conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and released in January found the DOT underestimated cost estimates for 16 ongoing major highway projects by a total of about $3.1 billion, and did not adequately account for the extent to which inflation and unexpected expenses could contribute to cost increases.
The department also failed to make use of measures it had developed to help streamline its operations, the audit found.
The new proposal is being spearheaded by Sens. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, and Reps. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield.
"This bill will restore taxpayer confidence in an agency that has strayed from the sound fiscal and good-government principles we expect," Sanfelippo said in a statement.
Under the bill, DOT would have more options for project delivery to bring down costs and shorten completion times. The bill would also create a Technical Review Committee to review contract proposals, and create incentives to use Wisconsin-based contractors.
The amount of engineering work allowed to be done by DOT staff would be limited to 20 percent, and the agency would be required to revise its funding formula to be based on need rather than baseline funding.
The agency would be required to report its progress to the Legislature, and would be subjected to an operational and financial audit.
The bill also includes proposals that have already been introduced as separate legislation. Roundabouts could not be constructed without approval from local communities, and communities could not implement a wheel tax without approval granted through a referendum. The state auditor would appoint an inspector general to investigate the operations and finances of the DOT, and a portion of federal funds would be "swapped" with state dollars to cut down on federal regulations. The bill also includes a repeal of the state's prevailing wage.
"After demonstrating a poor use of taxpayer dollars, substantial reform is essential at the DOT," Kapenga said in a statement. "These reforms have been proven around the country to save significant money and deliver projects in a more efficient and effective manner. It is part of what is need to help get the agency back on track."
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, criticized the proposal, which she said would result in "massive worker pay cuts, project delays and costly borrowing." She highlighted in particular the proposal to repeal prevailing wage laws.
"Outsourcing jobs and paying workers less isn’t going to fill our potholes any quicker. Instead of maxing out the state’s credit card, we need a real plan that invests in infrastructure, protects Wisconsin jobs and improves the safety of our local roads," Shilling said in a statement.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he supports most components of the bill, including the prevailing wage repeal.
"I look forward to working with my colleagues in both chambers to improve the DOT to bring about a more effective and efficient agency," Vos said in a statement. "However, it’s important to understand that reforms alone won’t resolve the transportation funding issue that must be addressed in order to maintain a reliable and safe highway system."