Wisconsin Republicans no closer to road-funding deal

MADISON — Republican legislative leaders appeared to be no closer to an agreement Wednesday, May 10th over how to solve Wisconsin's road-funding shortfall, with the Senate GOP leader discounting a sweeping tax reform plan unveiled by the Assembly last week.

Gov. Scott Walker also opposes that proposal and is reiterating his opposition to any solution that would raise taxes.

In the face of their own plan's likely rejection, Assembly leaders challenged Senate Republicans to come up with an alternate proposal.

"Today we're not in the same place," budget committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren said. "We have to come up with a solution that addresses the problem."

The intra-party squabbling came amid news that tax collections are holding steady, meaning there will be no more, and no less, revenue available in the state budget than previously anticipated in January.

The biggest roadblock Republicans have in the budget is how to solve the projected $1 billion roads shortfall. Walker proposed delaying projects and borrowing about half a billion dollars. Assembly Republicans offered a plan that would lower the borrowing to $200 million, move to a flat income tax over 12 years, cut the gas tax and apply the sales tax to fuel sales, among many other changes.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos guaranteed on Wednesday that the Legislature won't pass a road-funding budget that increases borrowing by $300 million or more.

"That is a non-starter for the Assembly," Vos said. "We're not going to continue to borrow and spend. And that unfortunately is what we have done for six years and I take part of the responsibility for that. We kept thinking we would find a long-term solution."

Fitzgerald, just minutes later, told reporters he was open to additional borrowing and spending from the state's main account along with toll roads. He all-but assured the Assembly approach was dead on arrival, saying "I don't see the momentum for that plan ultimately being adopted and being part of this budget right now."

Walker has said he'd be willing to look at more spending from the state's main account — which also pays for K-12 schools, the University of Wisconsin, prisons, Medicaid and other government operations — to help pay for roads. The transportation fund currently is mostly made up of money from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

Vos warned of dire consequences for ongoing major road construction projects if the Legislature can't find a long-term funding solution.

"If we can't reach agreement a lot of these projects are going to stop because we can't continue to borrow without a long-term plan to pay," he said.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau told lawmakers that its January projections for tax collections over the next two years will not be revised up or down. Nygren called it "great news," in light of downturns seen in other states.

But Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a member of the budget committee, said the numbers are not a good sign for the economy.

Tax collections so far this fiscal year, which ends in June, are 2.2 percent higher than the previous year, Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang wrote to lawmakers. The original projection was for 2.7 percent growth.

Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson reacted to the report by reiterating the governor's opposition to raising taxes to balance the budget.

"This is no time to be raising taxes on the people of Wisconsin," Evenson said.