MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans scrapped Gov. Tony Evers’ transportation budget Thursday and replaced it with a plan that would fund road work through a combination of title and registration fee increases, an infusion of general tax dollars and new borrowing. The proposal also would limit security for the state’s first black lieutenant governor.
Evers’ budget would have pumped nearly $624 million in new revenue into road projects over the 2019-2021 state budget. The centerpiece of his proposal was raising the gas tax by 8 cents per gallon and increasing it annually to account for inflation. The governor also called for raising heavy truck fees by 27 percent and for borrowing an additional $338 million.
Republicans on the Legislature’s finance committee stripped Evers’ plan out of the budget and inserted their own on an 11-5 vote Thursday evening.
Transportation funding has long divided Republicans. Assembly Republicans have called for finding new revenue sources to cover the increasing expense of building and maintaining roads and have said they’re open to a gas tax increase. Senate Republicans have balked at that idea, though. The impasse between the two houses delayed passage of the last state budget until September 2017, nearly three months after it was due.
GOP leaders spent most of the day Thursday in closed meetings trying to iron out an alternative to Evers’ concepts.
They came up with a plan that spends an additional $483.7 million on roads and scraps the gas tax increase and heavy truck registration fee hikes. Republicans instead would raise title fees by $95 to $164; increase the $75 registration fee most car owners pay to $85; and standardize fees for sport utility vehicles and minivans at $100.
The plan also amends the definition of hybrid vehicles so the Department of Transportation can impose a new $75 fee on them. The current state budget imposed the fee but the DOT has struggled to implement it because the budget didn’t provide a full definition of hybrids.
The plan calls for a one-time transfer of $90 million from the state’s general fund, as well as an additional $326 million in borrowing.
“This motion fixes more damn roads than his does,” Republican Rep. Mark Born said, mocking Evers’ catchphrase “fix the damn roads.”
Committee Democrats argued that the gas tax increase is the fairest way to raise money for road work because it gets money from out-of-state drivers. They likened the fee increases to taxes and warned they’ll hurt low-income people’s ability to buy cars and get to work.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement that Republicans still can’t find a sustainable way to fund roads.
“Raiding our state coffers and making Wisconsinites foot the bill for the rest instead of making out-of-state drivers pay their fair share isn’t the long-term solution Wisconsinites are asking for,” Baldauff said.
Wisconsin currently imposes a 32.9-cent per gallon gas tax, 11th highest in the country. The tax is the largest source of revenue for road work but hasn’t increased since April 2006. Evers’ proposal would have moved the tax into the top 10 based on figures compiled by the Tax Foundation.
Sen. Duey Stroebel was the only Republican committee member who voted against the plan. Asked why, Stroebel said that he doesn’t have much faith in DOT Secretary Craig Thompson because he was a lobbyist for road-builders, but didn’t elaborate. Thompson advocated for years on behalf of road builders to increase spending on road projects before Evers appointed him to the secretary post.
Stroebel wasn’t the only Republican unhappy with the plan. Sen. Steve Nass isn’t a committee member but he issued a statement complaining the new proposal contains excessively high levels of new revenue with no accountability for the DOT.
“Tonight is a big win for the road-building special interests and a big loss for the taxpayers,” Nass said
Assembly Speaker Robin Voss and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issued a joint statement saying they plan to introduce reforms designed to ensure tax dollars earmarked for transportation infrastructure are spent efficiently. They didn’t elaborate.
Nass predicted Evers will probably veto any stand-alone bill imposing accountability on the DOT, a cabinet agency.
The Republican plan also would prohibit the Wisconsin State Patrol from spending more on security for the lieutenant governor in the 2019-2021 biennium than was spent in the 2017-2019 biennium. The state patrol protects state dignitaries.
Republicans inserted the prohibition after it was revealed last month that Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes had nine times more hours of security protection during his first two months in office than his GOP predecessor, Rebecca Kleefisch, had all of 2018. Barnes’ security cost $36,662 over the two-month period.
Barnes is the first African American to hold the post in state history. It’s not clear why he was receiving so much more protection. A state patrol spokesman wouldn’t say whether a threat warranted the coverage and Barnes has declined to comment.