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‘Everything is on the table’ for Wisconsin transportation funding, Joint Finance co-chairs say | Politics and Elections

MARINETTE — How to fund Wisconsin’s roads continues to be the most pressing question for state lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget committee, as they hold the final public hearing on the budget here. 

“Transportation’s going to be the biggest challenge. I think everything is on the table right now,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters Friday.

More than 100 people were signed up Friday morning to testify at the committee’s public hearing at Marinette High School, the last of six public events where legislators sought input on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed two-year spending plan. 

The governor’s $76.1 billion budget would have allocated about $6.1 billion for transportation funding, including a $40 million increase in general transportation aids to counties and municipalities. The proposal included $500 million in borrowing.

But the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee dropped the governor’s transportation proposal from the budget earlier this month, a highly unusual move signaling the committee will essentially build its own proposal from a blank slate. 

Lawmakers are tasked with executing a “balancing act,” Darling said.

While Walker said his proposal focused on safety and maintenance, Assembly Republicans argued it didn’t offer a long-term fix, and have called for a $300 million revenue hike offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere.

Walker last month promised to veto a gas tax increase in any case. He has said throughout the months-long debate over transportation funding that he would veto a gas tax hike or vehicle registration fee increase without a corresponding tax cut somewhere else.

“Originally, the governor had said if we could find additional revenues for transportation and were able to offset them with tax cuts in other places in the budget, he would be supportive of that. He has changed his position since then, but we are working with that original framework,” said Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. “We believe we can get there.”

Nygren said he and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, are working together on a transportation proposal they plan to release “pretty soon.”

As lawmakers have traveled the state, Nygren said, they have heard about funding needs for county and town roads more than major highways. But Darling noted her district includes unfinished state highway and interstate mega projects.

“We need to have a long-term vision, we need to put that in place and build toward meeting that vision, because we can’t let the major highways not be completed because it’s just going to cost us more,” Darling said. “Delays will cost more, repairs will cost more, and transportation is our lifeblood to safety and jobs. That’s true all over the state.”

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