Just Fix It Wisconsin

What isn’t deteriorating in Wisconsin? Walker’s road budget mess 6/8/2016

6/8/2016, On Milwaukee – What isn’t deteriorating in Wisconsin? You can’t argue our universities have improved. You certainly can’t argue our roads have either, yet both are critical to our state. Both are suffering great harm. On top of it, a new report says jobs numbers are still lagging the nation.

Now comes word that Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation secretary thinks the consequence of his boss’ policies is the “continued deterioration” of 90 percent of our state’s roads. That’s a rather stunning statement. Let me repeat it.

The governor’s own transportation secretary thinks 90 percent of our roads will “continue” to deteriorate – this despite the excessive borrowing in the budget for roads the last time. The Wisconsin State Journal broke the story, with the lede, “Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said his forthcoming budget request to Gov. Scott Walker will not propose major tax or fee increases – a move Gottlieb acknowledged would delay road expansion work and upkeep of all but the state’s most-traveled highways.”

Great.

Gottlieb said the budget, if passed as requested, would prioritize bridges and U.S. interstates and highways, but put everything else on the back burner. “That non-backbone system, which is about 90 percent of the state highway system, is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb said.

At some point, this imperils safety. At some point, this imperils the economy. Rural areas, in particular, are getting shafted.

So, let me get this straight: The governor doesn’t want us to ride trains or streetcars (“choo-choos” in talk radio parlance), but he’s not giving us decent roadways, either? Great, should we walk? The story said the delays could include those in the Milwaukee area, such as rebuilding of the Zoo Interchange and expanding I-94 south of Milwaukee. Please don’t tell me we’re going to have to endure any more of that headache-inducing, endless Zoo Interchange mess. Come to think of it, has anyone looked into why that’s taking so long?

We went through this in the last budget, remember? Walker wouldn’t budge, so more debt was the answer. How much more can our roadways take? They’re already ranked among the nation’s worst. That’s a disgrace. At Walker’s supposed request, Gottlieb’s budget is “revenue neutral,” meaning he’s not asking for additional revenue this time. Translation: Walker doesn’t want the bad press of asking for more money, and he wants to dump the mess into the legislature’s laps so they can take the heat.

It’s almost like you can read the thought bubble over the governor’s head. Aforementioned thought bubble: “I can never raise taxes, ever, and to heck with the consequences. Heck, it’s got me this far.”

Well, actually he just comes out and says it. He will never raise taxes, ever. This creates a headline that has worked for him with the public. It’s simple and memorable. It’s advanced him politically since he was Milwaukee County executive and so he’s sticking with what works. The problem is, when it comes to roads, the governor won’t raise gas taxes or registration fees and has offered no strong plan for an alternative. Thus, in the words of his own transportation secretary, our roadways will continue to deteriorate.

This seems to not concern our governor. After all, he gets the headline, and the transportation budget mess will be tossed into the legislature’s lap to deal with while the governor cuts off the legislature’s options but lets members of his own party take the heat. I suspect some are very unhappy about this but too loyal to say it.

Part of the problem: More fuel-efficient cars reduce revenues needed to replenish the transportation fund. Heck, when I put this debate on social media, I received more creative proposals from my Facebook commenters than I’ve heard coming from the governor. Some proposed creating car registration fee increases that are scaled to the value of people’s cars. Makes some sense to me. Yes, I am not a fan of taxes going up, either; however, unsafe roadways are worse. You get what you pay for, and deferred maintenance (sound familiar) has worse consequences down the road.

Despite all the negative rhetoric about government, there are some things we expect government to do. Maintaining our roads is one of them. One of my Facebook readers trashed me for not solving the problem myself. I’m not the governor. Isn’t that what we elected him to do?

I respect governing that is pragmatic and about solving problems, not designed to create gimmicky headlines that make one politician look good while causing consequences that, now, appear to be impacting public safety. Only the public can fix this by not falling for it anymore.

And, yes, the university analogy fits. I expect our leaders to present visionary reform plans if they are going to allow our universities to flounder and regress and our roads to “deteriorate.” Just punting the problem for the headline is not leadership.

In this case, I feel sorry for the Republicans in the legislature. Walker appears poised to toss the transportation budget problem in the legislature’s lap while indicating he won’t support the needed fixes. We could also argue, I suppose, that transportation spending should be reduced through greater efficiency. Isn’t that the rhetoric on UW? How come some budgets are sacrosanct? If you think there’s nowhere to cut in the transportation budget, you didn’t watch those videos they shelled out money for on roundabouts. And, yes, Jim Doyle was wrong to raid the transportation fund, but Doyle isn’t governor anymore.

I respect leaders who make tough decision in the public’s interest even if they’re not in their own. Walker is not that kind of leader, sadly, not on roads or UW.

Other Republicans are starting to notice this. Conservative George Mitchell wrote a fine piece calling out Walker for his irresponsibility on roads for Right Wisconsin, Charlie Sykes’ website. And on universities, Republican lawmaker Alberta Darling penned a column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel so laudatory of UW-Milwaukee’s research mission the other day that I almost thought a professor wrote it. When I saw Darling’s byline on the piece, I almost fell off my chair (in a good way). It was extremely refreshing to not be the only non-liberal publicly saying this now. Well, one of them anyway …

Bravo to her. Darling praised UWM’s research mission, noting that it’s one of only two research universities in the state and in the top two percent of research universities in the country. She also praised UWM’s contributions to the local economy. In so doing, she effectively broke with Walker (and some in the legislature) on the issue by exposing the facile and misleading rhetoric the governor has used as rationale for his massive funding cuts. She never used his name. She didn’t have to do so. The contrast was obvious.

Walker implies professors are lazy, says they need to work more and are overpaid, and acts like research has no value and professors do absolutely nothing outside of class. He might deny this, but that’s what his rhetoric adds up to, in full. And that doesn’t mean I think there was nowhere to cut in the UW budget – but not this much, this fast, with a freeze on tuition revenue and without thoughtful planning, while being pushed with misleading or false rhetoric.

In reality, professors are hired at research universities like UWM to – shocker here – research (in part). They are, thus, being trashed (using misleading numbers, no less) for doing what they were hired to do and for doing what many of them excel at doing, often bringing in grant money besides. I find this despicable. Alberta Darling just threw Walker under the bus. Did anyone else notice? Let’s see if the funding follows.

It would be nice if other conservatives joined Darling and Mitchell’s example: speaking out against policies deleterious (like these on roads and universities) to the state’s interest and future. It would be wonderful if someone like former Gov. Tommy Thompson – a booster of the UW who recognizes its importance to the state’s economy – would write the next column in Darling’s wake. It would be wonderful if some Democrats with a stake in the city’s future – Tom Barrett, Gwen Moore – would speak out about UWM and stop being completely AWOL on the issue.

Come to think of it, it would be wonderful if Thompson – a fan of trains, a fan of decent roads, a fan of visionary governing and actually solving problems through innovation – would pen a column on the transportation budget and offer some big ideas since Walker won’t.

Come to think of it, I wish Tommy Thompson was still governor. Who cares how old he is. Run, Tommy, run. Because I’m not sure how much more of this our state can take. There’s a tipping point, you know.