The State Senate’s Republican caucus apparently has united around the position that a Department of Transportation it regards as mismanaged should receive $700 million in new highway debt. Meanwhile, Assembly Republican leaders have said no to more debt with specific new revenue to help repay the loans.
It was not always that way. Indeed, legislative records and news accounts show that the two chambers have more or less done a 180 on transportation debt in less than two years.
The role reversals reflect the ongoing bind for legislators arising from Governor Scott Walker’s ultimatum that there will be no gas tax or fee hike. (The reality is, despite public sparring now underway between Senate and Assembly Republicans, there is a private consensus among many in both chambers that more revenue is needed.)
On November 4, 2015, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee met to consider $350 million in new highway debt. On a 10-6 vote, the committee OK’d the new borrowing. All six Republican Senators voted “NO” while Assembly Republicans joined the committee’s four Democrats in voting “YES”.
Supporters of the new debt said it was needed to keep various projects on track. That is exactly the argument Senators now are making in support of twice the bonding that they opposed in November 2015.
Consider these excerpts from a report by Wisconsin Public Radio’s Shawn Johnson:
In a 10-6 vote that crossed party lines, the state Legislature’s budget committee has approved $350 million in borrowing to pay for highway building and maintenance in Wisconsin…
All Senate Republicans voted no, with Senate Co-Chair Alberta Darling saying it was premature to approve new borrowing. “Today, we’re not going to kick the can, we’re going to take the tough vote,” Darling said. “It’s really hard for us to say no, but that’s what we said we were going to do.”
Even with the funds approved Wednesday, the bonding in this budget …is considerably less than the $1.3 billion in borrowing Gov. Scott Walker originally wanted. But the budget did little to address the long-term challenges facing Wisconsin’s road fund, where the state will spend a record high 21 cents of every transportation dollar on debt service.
Some Republican lawmakers have said they’re open to raising revenue for roads, but Walker has stridently opposed any gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase…Walker’s preference has been borrowing, exacerbating road funding challenges that have plagued the state for years…
…Darling stopped short of endorsing any specific revenue proposals, but she said lawmakers would come up with an answer for the road fund. “We need to find a sustainable solution,” Darling said. “We can’t kick the can down the road any longer,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the committee. “I know we’ve said that before – but we can’t.”
The comments from Senator Darling then echo those of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos today. What has changed in this go-round is the Assembly’s decision — so far — to back up the rhetoric about “not kicking the can down the road.” Senate Republicans believe there is no option but to go with the governor. With Walker having told Assembly Republicans there will be no gas tax hike now OR if he is re-elected, GOP leaders in the Assembly say if he’s going to draw that line on new revenue they will draw a similar one on new debt and let the transportation fund “live within its means.”