MacIver News Service | September 12, 2017
By M.D. Kittle
[Madison, Wis...] Legislation that changes the makeup up of the state's transportation advisory commission would create an expanded bureaucracy sympathetic to hiking gas taxes and vehicle fees, critics of the proposal charge.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee passed an omnibus motion on transportation finance, including a measure that would modify membership to the Transportation Projects Commission and provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund new positions.
More so, the legislation would require the state Department of Transportation to adopt the long-range planning recommendations made by the TPC, to "the extent permitted by federal and state law."
Sen. Steve Nass does not support the TPC language in the omnibus motion, said Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for the Whitewater Republican.
"He clearly thinks this particular change is to thwart the governor," he said. "If you look at the changes to the TPC and then look at the failure of the Joint Finance Committee to incorporate significant DOT reforms, from the Assembly position they are not looking to reform the DOT but spend more."
Assembly GOP leadership pushed for hikes to the state's gas tax and vehicle fees, and other sources of new revenue to feed Wisconsin's disputed $1 billion transportation budget shortfall. They warned the state could not longer borrow its way to a long-term transportation fix. Assembly Republicans expressed disappointment that the JFC budget mainly stuck to Walker's transportation initiatives, including more than $400 million in bonding and no tax or fee increases.
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said the budget bill is workable for now. "You live to fight another day," he told MacIver News last week. But the "conversation is far from over," Nygren tweeted, "and I'm looking forward to continuing to advocate for a dedicated and sustainable solution."
Could the solution begin with a reconfigured Transportation Projects Commission?
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters Tuesday evening that he feels good about the reforms to the Transportation Projects Commission.
"I have only had positive feedback from members on TPC reforms," the Juneau Republican said. "Compared to what the TPC is now, which is completely dysfunctional, this makes a lot of sense."
The motion reduces from three to two the number of public members appointed by the governor to the commission. The Assembly and Senate would each name three legislators, down from five, and the Legislature would appoint four members of the public. The measure specifies that either the secretary of the DOT or the Department of Administration would be appointed as non-voting members, as determined by the governor. Currently, the commission is served by five senators, five representatives, three public members appointed by the governor, the secretary of the DOT, and the governor, who chairs the panel.
The proposal also would initially create three new positions and a commission director. TPC staff would include an engineer, legal counsel, and financial auditor. An appropriation of $150,000 in 2017-19 would fund the "initial costs associated with the Director position," according to the omnibus motion.
Another $550,000 in general purpose revenue funds would cover as many as four additional positions "determined necessary by the TPC in consultation with the Director." The money also would pay for supplies and services approved by the commission.
TPC staff would review DOT financial records to assure the transactions are "legal and proper." And the staff would annually evaluate the Department of Transportation based on goals and performance measures established by the TPC.
The commission is charged with reviewing major highway project candidates and it recommends to the governor and the Legislature projects to be "enumerated" for inclusion in the two-year state budget.
An expanded TPC would be required to consider the denumeration of projects that are at least 10 years old. The proposal would require the TPC to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature "describing the short-term and long-term impacts of each DOT biennial budget request on state and local roads." It would do the same review on the governor's proposed budget.
Fitzgerald said the changes were necessary, especially in light of an audit earlier this year that "demonstrated that the TPC had zero handle or control over budget timelines and interaction with the feds. That's why when the Speaker (Rep. Robin Vos) and I sat down to kind of map out what that might look like I felt really good about the outcome of the TPC reform."
"I think it's going to work and function and that's what we're looking for," he added.
The Joint Finance Committee didn't take up many of the transportation reforms authored by a group of fiscal hawks. Those reforms included different practices for completing projects, streamlining the bidding, designing and building process to save taxpayers money.
"You have to look at the TPC changes in context," Mikalsen said. "Assembly leadership prevented certain other reforms from being included in the budget, delaying prevailing wage until September of next year. That's a whole other construction season."
Fitzgerald said he wasn't ready to give on the prevailing wage timeline. He said there needs to be a "grace period" in the implementation of prevailing wage-free state construction projects, as there was in the last reform to Wisconsin's antiquated prevailing wage law in 2015.
The Senate aide said the TPC modifications represent a small piece of the overall $6.072 million transportation package, something Nass hopes the governor will veto.
The governor's office declined to comment on vetoes until the legislative process is completed.
Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, said the Rochester Republican supports the changes to the commission "in order to add a level of accountability and oversight to the Department of Transportation and highway projects."
Looking For Votes
Fitzgerald said the Senate is "working toward hitting the floor" Friday morning to take up the overdue state budget - two days after the Assembly is expected to vote on the two-year spending plan.
Does he have the votes? Not yet.
"Hopefully we'll have a minimum of 17 votes to be able to take the vote up and run with it," the majority leader said.
"We're still working on pulling those votes together right now," he added, counting 15 Senate Republicans in the support column.
Fitzgerald said it's hard to nail down the concerns of reluctant caucus members, that there are a "wide range of items" in the budget that are sticking points with some Republicans.