MacIver News Service | June 30, 2017
By M.D. Kittle
[Madison, Wis...] - It appears the GOP-controlled Assembly's plan to slap a new fee on heavy trucks is dead on arrival in the Senate.
But is a bigger transportation bonding package still viable in the upper house?
State Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) on Friday took aim at conservative senators who publicly shot down the fee proposal even as the Senate has been considering boosting new bonding for transportation projects to $850 million.
The senators- Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon), Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), and Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) - issued a joint statement Friday opposing the proposed fee. They reiterated that, "Now is not the time to raise taxes on Wisconsinites."
Steineke countered with a question: What is bonding if not a tax on the future?
"What it boils down to is if (the senators) are consistent that (the Wisconsin Department of Transportation) can't be trusted with more taxpayer money, or they think there are massive savings we must first uncover in the the department, I think that's a valid position," Steineke told MacIver News Service. "What is not valid is they are okay spending borrowed money as they say no to raising revenue because it's a tax. They are still taxing people. They may not be taxing them now, but they are taxing my kids, your kids."
The senators reiterated that they do not support tax or free increases to support Wisconsin's troubled transportation budget. Gov. Scott Walker has held the same position, although he seemingly had eased up on the Assembly plan. At least sources say the governor told Republican legislative leadership he would not stand in the way of the two houses negotiating a compromise that could include a heavy truck fee.
Steineke, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), and other members of Assembly leadership, have said the Legislature needs to find a way to pay for the state's road projects, and they see revenue increases - tax or fee hikes - as a better option than borrowing.
The plan being kicked around in the Senate would include $350 million more in borrowing than the governor has proposed in his budget plan. State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) offered a plan earlier in the budget session that would, among other provisions, substantially pay down Walker's $500 million bonding proposal by implementing a sales tax on gasoline - a tax that does not currently exist. Kooyenga's plan was met with resistance from fiscal conservatives who saw the measure as anathema to Walker's stand against tax increases in a time of budget surpluses.
The five senators who say they oppose the heavy truck fee said they have no interest in rewarding with new tax revenue a DOT that an audit found wasted hundreds of millions dollars through inefficient and incompetent practices.
"As the budget debate lingers, it remains clear that some in the Legislature are seeking to increase WisDOT taxes in any way possible," the senators said.
"The 'tax of the week' is a new tax on trucking. Instead of getting creative to find new ways to tax Wisconsinites, we should be discussing the reforms needed to clean up an agency with a record of over-designing, over-building, and over-paying for our roads," the press release states.
Steineke agrees that reforms are needed, but he doesn't see the savings drawn from them to be enough to cover the gap in transportation funding. The bigger issue, he said, is the anti-conservative idea of borrowing out of a budget hole.
"It doesn't make any sense. They're not willing to give up more money but borrowed money is okay, I guess," the lawmaker said. "Even if we raise revenue (with the heavy truck fee) it wouldn't be anywhere near $850 million."
Stroebel said there has been mixed reaction in the Senate to the bonding upper. He said the idea is open to negotiation.
"I think we need to understand what our needs are and our wants are and live within our means," he said. "I am adverse to more debt."
"After that DOT audit we can't say, 'Hey, you guys are a doing a crappy job! Here's more money.' That's not the way conservatives solve problems," Stroebel said.
The senator is preparing for budget talks post-heavy truck fee proposal. He noted that Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has said it would be tough to get the votes for it after five Republican lawmakers have made clear they are against such fee increases.
Steineke said the Legislature ought to be able to "walk and chew gum at the same time," that is to say it should be able to deal with reviewing the DOT's spending habits while finding money for important road projects.
What's next on the transportation budget battle front?
"I don't know where we go from here," Steineke said, adding that Assembly Republicans have been "very open with the (Republican members of the) Senate." He said there's room for compromise on bonding and tax and fee increases. If not, Vos has said DOT should go back to base funding. Fitzgerald earlier this week called that position "laughable."
"We have to have that conversation again," Steineke said, with frustration in his voice.