Transportation Budget Battle Brews in Madison

Dec 7, 2016

If there’s one state issue that riles a lot of Wisconsin leaders these days, it’s transportation. Wisconsin could face a $1 billion shortfall in its next transportation budget. Should lawmakers scale back projects or find more money?

An Assembly committee held the first hearing Tuesday on the Department of Transportation's spending plan. Legislators from both political parties questioned the administration’s priorities.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb spent more than three hours testifying before the Assembly committee. He started by sharing with lawmakers Gov. Scott Walker's mandate to the DOT earlier this year.

"Gov. Walker directed our department to submit a budget proposal that focused on four key themes: no increase in transportation taxes or fees; a responsible level of bonding; a highway program that emphasizes maintenance and safety and system preservation; and an increase in local aids," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb says the plan he submitted to Walker in September fulfills the Republican governor's wishes. Yet the panel was not satisfied with a number of provisions, including the proposal to postpone completion of major highway projects, in order to stick within a tight budget. The delays include a portion of the Zoo Interchange, and I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois border.

Democratic state Rep. Robb Kahl of Monona grilled Gottlieb on the plan's impact: "Is it not fair to say that this disinvestment and the resulting increase in congestion will make these projects more unsafe for the traveling public? It's just a yes or no."

Mark Gottlieb: "Well, sometimes yes or no is not the whole answer."

Gottlieb seemed hesitant to confirm the budget plan could cause hazardous conditions.

"As I said, to the extent that we defer those investments, the benefits that we would otherwise realize -- which, as I said, are safety, congestion relief, vehicle operation, other things -- yes, those benefits, the realization of those benefits, including safety benefits, will be deferred, yes," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb, whom Gov. Walker appointed, also took hits from fellow members of the Republican Party. New Berlin Rep. Joe Sanfelippo questioned how the DOT spends its money. For instance, he accused the department of using costly materials to rebuild the deck of the Hoan Bridge. Sanfelippo claims the materials will last longer than the structure itself.

"When I put a roof on my house, I would love to put a lifetime roof on and spend 250 percent more, (but) it doesn’t make sense to put a lifetime roof on my house when the foundation is collapsing," Sanfelippo said.

Sanfelippo says it's tough to defend some of the DOT's choices. Secretary Gottlieb had this retort: "I don't know if your constituents would rather have their bridges designed by bridge engineers or legislators. I guess that's a question you could ask them."

Yet another Republican brought up an argument brewing within the GOP: the issue of whether the state should raise taxes or fees to plug the budget hole and pay for needed improvements. Gottlieb rejected the idea, saying "the governor has made a determination that he does not think this is the right time to raise taxes or fees on Wisconsin families and businesses."

Several committee members pointed out that in the past, Gottlieb has called for new sources of revenue.

"As a conservative who is elected on maintaining the taxpayers' resources as best as I possibly can, this is not something that I'm excited about. But we should consider all our options," Rep. John Nygren of Marinette said.

Nygren says the governor and lawmakers have been saying "no" to new taxes and fees for years, and the time has come to put the idea back on the table.