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July 28, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT
Wisconsin Faces Nearly $1 Billion Shortfall in Road Funding
Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

The co-chairman of the state’s powerful budget-writing committee called on Gov. Scott Walker this week to consider finding ways to raise revenue for the state’s transportation budget, which will suffer from a $939 million shortfall in the next biennium, according to the latest estimates.

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) proposed lawmakers and Walker consider raising the state’s gas tax or create a toll road system to shore up the state’s funding for roads that has been subsidized with borrowing for years.

But Walker, on July 27, stood firm in his long-held opposition to raising taxes or imposing fees to help pay for road projects — putting him at odds with leaders in his own party who have implored the governor to consider finding new revenue.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo released this week at Nygren’s request said the state needs to find $939 million for the 2017-19 budget to keep funding at the same level that lawmakers passed in the current state budget.

Nygren also said without new revenue, planned projects — such as the projects underway in southern Wisconsin — are in jeopardy.

“We’re basically passing the cost onto our kids and we can’t continue to rely on bonding,” Nygren said in a conference call with reporters.

Nygren noted in a separate statement released July 26 that the $939 million shortfall estimate also doesn’t include debt service payments.

“Our state’s principal repayment currently stands at $4.3 billion in bonding; a whopping $3.5 billion of this repayment is owed by the transportation fund and the rest is set to come from the general fund,” he said. “Moreover, some of the transportation bonds that were approved last budget have yet to be issued, which means Wisconsin’s debt service will only continue to rise.”

Walker, in response, said he will not support new taxes and fees.

“Raising taxes and fees is not the answer,” Walker said in a statement. “Under our administration, we will keep it a priority to live within the means of the hardworking people of Wisconsin. That is a commitment I will honor.”

Walker noted he has directed Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to identify cost savings to help shore up the budget, “especially when it comes to safety and maintenance.”

“I am confident we can do better than placing new taxes on Wisconsin citizens,” Walker said.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) accused Nygren of pandering for votes with his call to find new revenue — noting Nygren had similar information on the state of the transportation budget while rejecting Democratic proposals for new revenue.

“Rep. Nygren knew the data showing that Wisconsin has the third-worst roads in the nation when he led the Finance Committee to adopt the disastrous transportation budget that was even worse than what Walker proposed,” Barca said in a statement. “He led the fight against Democrats’ proposed solutions, further shortchanging our state’s crumbling, pothole-filled roads.”

A transportation-funding fix has proven elusive in recent years for Republicans who control state government. Lawmakers and Walker discussed a state road funding solution during last two budget cycles but failed to agree on one.

Instead, they have turned to borrowing and delaying projects to balance the transportation ledger.

The state budget now in effect delayed highway expansions around the state, including Verona Road and Interstate 39-90.

Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Transportation data released last year showed the condition of Wisconsin’s roads among the nation’s worst.