The divisiveness among same-party legislators over how to fund Wisconsin’s failing roads makes transportation a candidate for the most controversial issue in the budget this year, a representative of a statewide transportation alliance said.
“It’s the one that has the potential to hold up passage of the entire budget this summer,” Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, told Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce members May 19.
Thompson alluded to the state’s heavy reliance on borrowing to supplement revenue earned from gas tax and registration fees. Those forms of revenue account for about three-quarters of the $3.5 billion transportation budget, Thompson said.
Wisconsin approved $850 million in bonding during the last budget cycle, and $900 million in the biennium before that, Thompson said. This year, the governor initially proposed $500 million in borrowing.
While some members of the state Senate appeared to support more borrowing, groups such as Thompson’s are lobbying against such moves.
“We’re at about almost 24 cents of every dollar that’s coming in right now is going to pay for debt service because we rely so heavily on bonding,” he said.
Roads all the rage
Thompson cited a U.S. News and World Report statistic showing Wisconsin ranked 49th overall for conditions of roads.
He said the International Roughness Index, a standardized system to measure state highway conditions, found that 32% of Wisconsin roads were in good condition, which was lagging far behind Iowa, the next highest ranked with 52% of roads in decent shape.
Despite agreement that road repair is a pressing issue that is set to impact business growth and development, legislators can’t find common ground on how to solve it.
Gov. Scott Walker has said that he would veto increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration fee unless there was an offset somewhere else.
One legislator’s plan to apply sales tax to gas was dismissed by the governor as still increasing the cost of gasoline. Another legislator recommended pulling transportation from the budget to vote on it separately.
“The three branches are kind of staring at each other when it comes to transportation,” Thompson said.
“The issue continues to keep getting heightened,” he said. “From our standpoint, it’s hard to see where it’s going to go from here.”