More Twists, Turns on State Budget Road

Think of it like one of those great rides on a Driftless town road.

Well, ok, maybe that’s a little too poetic for what’s going on in Madison right now, but it’s a fair analogy in this sense: lots of twists and turns and ups and downs. Here’s the latest on the state budget.

The budget is now going on a month over due with no end in sight. State government moves along under the old spending plan, so things don’t just stop, but as we start to get late into the summer and early fall, local governments will need to know what they’re getting from the state so that they can write their own budgets. All of which is to say that while there’s no immediate crisis there is a growing unease about the delay.

And, again, to remind everyone about why we should care, the transportation budget is the main reason for the hold up. The state faces as much as a billion dollar gap between road projects that have been planned and available revenues. Governor Scott Walker had proposed a $77 million increase in local road aids, which is good for cyclists, but that budget was set aside by the legislature and so that funding is uncertain until the big picture gets resolved.

So, the latest development is that the governor offered to take $200 million that he had earmarked for tax cuts and put it toward transportation. Actually, more specifically he offered to substitute that cash for transportation borrowing. There would be no extra spending as part of his proposal, just less use of the credit card.

Assembly Republicans led by Speaker Robin Vos immediately signed off on the governor’s plan while Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald balked. Minority Democrats are on the sidelines in both houses.

The Bike Fed has been generally supportive of Vos’ earlier position in favor of some transportation tax increases (probably the gas tax) to pay for needed road improvements. We have an interest in getting at least that $77 million back for local road fixes and we also have an interest in sustaining that kind of investment over several years.

But Vos, faced with unyielding opposition from Walker and the Senate, gave up the fight for new taxes. But then he threw a curve ball. He said that he would also oppose any new borrowing. That was a maneuver designed to put the Senate in a corner: Without new borrowing they could get there way on taxes only if they would accept further delays in big road projects favored by business and local governments in many cases.

Walker sought to get the Senate out of their corner by offering $200 million in cash, but Fitzgerald has not gone for it and we’re not sure why. In any event, Fitzgerald’s position is probably a good thing. The $200 million would come from the general fund, which means that it sets up transportation to compete with schools, health care, environmental protection and everything else the state does. It’s at best a stop gap measure, but as a long-term solution it’s little better than more borrowing.

So, that’s where we stand. Lots of hills behind us but more on the horizon. We seem to be into the rollers.

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