The Assembly Committee on Transportation held a hearing on the Department of Transportation’s 2017-19 state budget request on Tuesday, Dec. 6. This budget request includes $500 million in new bonding, but no tax or fee increases. Committee chairperson Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi) and the committee heard from 14 groups with a stake in the transportation budget, including the Department of Transportation (DOT), Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and more.
A significant portion of the all-day hearing was dedicated to testimony from DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Gottlieb opened his statement by addressing the need for increased transportation funding to finish mega highway projects and to conduct future studies across the state. At current funding levels, according to Gottlieb, 21 percent of the state highway system would be in poor condition in fiscal year 2018. And in 10 years, roughly half of Wisconsin roads would be in poor condition.
Secretary Gottlieb took questions from Assembly members regarding DOT spending, specifically regarding the $500 million in new bonding requested in the September DOT Budget Request and the increasing cost of highway 39/90 updates from an original estimate of $715 million to now $1.2 billion.
Secretary Gottlieb faced the toughest questions from Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), who questioned what he thought to be excessive DOT spending on stainless steel for the zoo interchange, additional stoplights, and excessive employee travel to California and overseas. Gottlieb defended these DOT spending examples, citing that stainless steel increases highway lifespan, that new stoplights reduce crashes, and that employee travel was mostly federally, not state, funded.
Other groups’ testimony called on the committee to increase funding for rural roads and public transportation to help business and emergency services run more smoothly and safely.
Almost everyone participating in the hearing agreed that legislators must provide a long-term solution to what was characterized as a transportation funding crisis in Wisconsin. However, some members of the state legislature and Gov. Scott Walker disagree about how to address it. Walker and some Senators have argued that DOT has a spending, not a revenue problem and requested that the upcoming transportation budget have no increases in taxes or fees. In particular, Sens. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) publicly said last week that they support Walker’s no-tax-increase plan. Assembly Republicans have stated that they are open to revenue increases after “find[ing] every cost savings possible.”
Gov. Walker also mentioned in an address this week that he would not support repealing Wisconsin’s minimum markup on motor vehicle fuel sales as a means of clearing the way for increased gas taxes or vehicle registration fees. While he expressed interest in repealing the Unfair Sales Act, Walker said that repealing the minimum markup on motor vehicle fuel sales would not count as a tax cut in regards to the upcoming transportation budget.
Gov. Walker will unveil his DOT budget, along with the rest of his biennial budget bill, in early 2017. As in past budgets, the issue of transportation funding is anticipated to be contentious and not subject to an easy or early resolution.