Wisconsin GOP plan to impose truck fees all but dead

MADISON — A tentative Republican plan to impose new fees on heavy trucks to help pay for road projects all but disintegrated Friday after several state senators said they couldn't support the proposal, which threatens to extend the stalemate on crafting the state budget.

Five GOP senators — Steve Nass, David Craig, Frank Lasee, Chris Kapenga and Duey Stroebel — issued a joint statement calling the fee a creative new way to tax Wisconsin residents and saying the state Department of Transportation is inefficient and doesn't deserve new money. A January audit found major projects over the last decade have cost twice as much as the DOT initially estimated and that Wisconsin's roads are in worse shape than those in six other Midwestern states.

"We should be looking for savings in government," the statement said. "Now is not the time to increase taxes on our citizens."

Republicans hold a 20-13 advantage over Democrats in the Senate. They need at least 17 votes to pass anything. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald has acknowledged the plan is likely dead.

Republicans have been quarreling among themselves for months over how best to fund roads in the 2017-19 state budget. The state transportation fund faces a $1 billion shortfall due to dwindling gas tax and vehicle registration fee revenue.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed borrowing $500 million and delaying projects. Assembly Republicans want to raise more revenue. Walker wants to avoid accusations that he raised taxes ahead of a potential run for a third term next year and has vowed to veto any gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase. Senate Republicans have proposed borrowing $850 million, which could spell less money for public schools and other state expenses.

Word emerged this week that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Fitzgerald were considering imposing a per-mile truck fee. Vos said the fee would generate up to $250 million over two years. Fitzgerald had initially called such an idea a "nonstarter" but said he was now "generally supportive."

But Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group and a staunch supporter of Republican candidates, blasted the plan Thursday. The group predicted the fee would dramatically increase the costs of goods for businesses and consumers as shipping companies raise prices to cover the fee.

Nass issued a news release Thursday calling the truck fee a desperate move to placate transportation interests. The other four senators joined him on Friday.

The quarreling over road funding has brought work on the budget to a standstill. The current budget ends Friday, but spending continues at current levels until a deal is reached.

Senate Republicans had planned to meet on July 6 to discuss the truck fee and other ideas. It wasn't immediately clear whether that meeting was still on. Tanck didn't immediately reply to a follow-up email. Vos' spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, also didn't immediately reply to an email.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling issued a statement Friday criticizing Republicans for failing to get the budget done on time despite having total control of state government.

"School boards don't know what their budgets will be, engineers can't get to work planning road projects and families are left wondering when this mess will get sorted out," Shilling said. "It's a sad commentary on the state of the Republican party when they've had months to get their act together."