MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker put forward what he's calling a "reasonable proposal" to break a state budget impasse that may hinge on Wisconsin getting 10 times more money than usual from the federal government to pay for roads.
Walker's plan got a lukewarm response from Republican legislative leaders, while Democrats blasted it as unrealistic and a sham.
Lawmakers have struggled to reach a deal on how to plug a nearly $1 billion transportation funding shortfall, leading to a delay in passage of a new two-year spending plan beyond the June 30 deadline. Current spending levels remain in place while the stalemate continues.
In the letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Wednesday, Walker proposed breaking the logjam by lowering borrowing by $200 million without affecting ongoing road work. He said that could be paid for through unspecified cost savings and because the transportation fund has about $93 million more than originally projected due to higher gas tax collections and lower debt service costs.
Walker's plan would not increase gas taxes or vehicle fees. That has been a key sticking point in the budget negotiations, with Assembly Republicans calling for more revenue as part of a road-funding solution.
"This is a reasonable proposal that allows the leadership in the Assembly and Senate — as well as taxpayers — to have significant wins on our major issues," Walker wrote.
Walker also proposed an unspecified amount of contingency borrowing linked to additional federal money to pay for keeping southeast Wisconsin mega-interstate projects on track. The projects cited by Walker are the Interstate 94 expansion from the Illinois border to Milwaukee North/South, the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange and the I-94 east-west expansion.
Walker said Wisconsin is "well positioned" to qualify for additional federal money to help support borrowing for those projects.
A separate memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, released to Democratic state Rep. Gordon Hintz on June 28, indicates Walker plans to seek $341 million in federal redistribution money. That is 10 times the roughly $34 million the state has received on average the past five years.
"That is not going to happen," Hintz said, dismissing Walker's plan as unrealistic. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca similarly panned Walker's proposal as "smoke and mirrors."
Knowing just how much money would realistically be available from the federal government is key to understanding whether what Walker is proposing is viable, Fitzgerald said during a break in a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans.
"I'm all ears," Fitzgerald said. "If somebody can tell me that will work, I think that will build credibility with the caucus and hopefully that might be one piece of what gets us through the transportation budget."
Walker's spokesman, Tom Evenson, wouldn't confirm that the governor was hoping for $341 million, saying the amount requested will be part of "ongoing discussions we have with the Legislature."
Vos said in a telephone interview that Walker was "showing movement" with his offer, but Vos still remains concerned about the level of borrowing being proposed. Vos said he was "patiently waiting" for Senate Republicans to respond.
"I continue to remain optimistic that Republicans can focus on the core value we all hold that it's not conservative to borrow and spend," he said.
Walker has toured the state, warning that failure to quickly pass a budget puts ongoing road construction work in jeopardy. But the Fiscal Bureau memo shows ongoing projects would be largely unaffected unless there isn't a new budget in three to six months.
Five conservative senators last week rejected an Assembly proposal to increase fees on semitrailers to raise $250 million over two years. Fitzgerald reiterated Thursday that that idea was dead. Various business and transportation groups have also come out against the fee increase, leading Vos to ask them to come up with alternatives by Monday.
Walker has been governor with full Republican control of the Legislature since 2011, and all three prior budgets were completed faster than this one. The first two were done in June. In 2015, the Legislature's budget committee passed the plan on July 3, and it won full legislative approval six days later.
In addition to roads funding, Republicans are still negotiating how much to allow income limits to increase for participants in the statewide private school voucher plan and various tax code changes, including possible reduction or elimination of the personal property tax paid by businesses.