Just Fix It Wisconsin

Matt Pommer: State singing the highway blues 6/12/2016

06/12/16, Janesville Gazette – Bad, but not unexpected, news has arrived for county and local governments.

Gov. Scott Walker has ruled out significant increases in state-collected revenue for the state’s struggling highway and road system in the 2017-2019 state budget.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said that means a delay in major road construction and upkeep on all but the state’s most-traveled roads.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation provided data showing Wisconsin roads were among the worst in the nation.

Gottlieb said he expects the Walker administration to focus on bridges and key roads such as the Interstate and major arteries.

The rest of the highway system—about 90 percent—“is going to continue to deteriorate in condition,” Gottlieb told the Wisconsin State Journal.

In the past, Walker has favored borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars for road construction and repairs. Initially, the governor requested $1.3 billion borrowing for the current biennium. The GOP-controlled Legislature reluctantly gave him $850 million in road-borrowing authority.

Now, 20 percent of the license fee and gasoline tax revenue is directed to pay off transportation bonds.

Walker hinted he might seek additional road borrowing in the next biennium. He declined to suggest how much he might consider.

Keeping the emphasis on major roads means county boards and local governments will be scrambling to cover needed road repairs. The major fiscal tool for local governments is the property tax.

Some local governments have adopted annual fees for vehicles. But it usually brings a storm of protest from some citizens. High taxes or fees are never popular.

Walker has said the only way he’d approve higher transportation taxes or fees would be if other state taxes were reduced.

Corporate income-tax revenues will decline when the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit system, already on the books, fully takes place. That is likely to occur as part of the next biennial budget.

On the other hand, the governor already is hinting he might suggest more tax money for the UW System, which took a $250 million cut in the current biennial budget.

The governor also has talked about providing more money for “public education,” but it’s unclear whether that will mean the university, elementary and secondary education, or vocational schools.

Talk of more money for “public education” may be a political move to answer criticism from rural educators who feel they have been shortchanged in state financial assistance.

Walker’s popularity has dipped significantly in western and northern parts of the state, according to earlier Marquette University Law School polls.

This spring, the governor has been a regular visitor in smaller cities in a seeming effort to regain support in the polls.

The new transportation budget talks have drawn sharp criticism from rural Republican legislators such as Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Keith Ripp of Lodi.

Rural districts “have already been hard hit by delays” for road maintenance in the current budget, he said.

Unexpected news? Not really.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net. The content in this column does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.