By Scott Bauer & Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee pressed the state’s Transportation Department leader to come up with a long-term solution to funding roads at a budget briefing Wednesday, sharply questioning why Gov. Scott Walker has refused to consider any gas tax or fee increases as part of a plan to keep major projects on time.
Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee said solving the roads funding issue will be the biggest struggle in passing the state budget this year. It’s an issue that’s dividing Republicans, as some are pushing for more revenue to keep projects on time while Walker and others in the GOP want to borrow more and delay work.
The sometimes contentious questioning of state Transportation Department Secretary Dave Ross began nearly 12 hours into the budget briefing around 9 p.m.
“It seems like we’re on a track where we’re stalling everything out, it’s going to cost us more money, we’re not raising revenue, and we’re spiraling into a hole that it is going to cost so much money to get our roads into shape we’ll never get it done,” said GOP Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon.
He said the key issue for Republicans will be determining whether there are enough unmet road needs in the state to warrant increasing taxes, or stick with Walker and borrow $500 million more and delay projects instead.
Assembly Republicans have proposed raising $300 million in unspecified transportation-related taxes and fees, with a corresponding reduction in unnamed taxes elsewhere.
Walker tweeted as the briefing was ongoing, saying “Let’s be clear. I don’t support spending less on K-12 education than what’s in my budget and I will veto a gas tax increase.”
The debate comes amid increasing concern among Republicans, who control both the Senate and Assembly, that worsening road conditions are hurting the state’s economy. A recent state audit found that the proportion of state highways in good condition decreased from 53.5 percent in 2010 to 41.0 percent in 2015.
Ross defending the governor’s approach, saying the state needed to finish ongoing highway projects and not take on new work that may not qualify for federal matching money.
The back and forth came on the second of three days of agency briefings on the state budget. The committee will hold six public hearings next month and begin voting on the plan in May.
Also on Wednesday:
• Attorney General Brad Schimel defended spending $10,000 on coins emblazoned with “Kicking Ass Every Day” and why hundreds of sexual assault kits are still untested.
More than 6,000 untested kits were sitting on Wisconsin shelves in 2014. A USA Today Network investigation in 2015 found at least 70,000 untested kits nationwide.
Schimel said the kits were never tested because prosecutors may have felt a case was too weak to continue or victims may have refused to cooperate. Police have since realized the kits could yield offender DNA profiles, triggering a push for testing, he said. The DOJ has sent 450 kits to a lab for testing so far and is sending about 200 kits in monthly, he said.
Democrats blasted Schimel for spending $10,000 to produce 2,000 coins emblazoned with “Kicking Ass Every Day.” Schimel said he hands the coins out as morale boosters.
He said he came up with the motto after deciding the DOJ’s previous slogan, “We Exist to Assist,” didn’t motivate anyone. He did say he didn’t know the coins cost $10,000 and he had put in “higher levels of approval” before such expenditures are made. He didn’t elaborate but said he didn’t think he would buy any more coins because he has enough.
Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee told Schimel she needs him to lead, not $10,000 in coins.
• Republicans called Walker’s proposed back-to-school sales tax holiday in August as a gimmick, throwing into question whether it will survive.
• Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman said the embattled King veterans home is a “gem” and has been unfairly maligned, but conceded that improvements are needed. Zimmerman promised that his top priority is increasing staffing at King and reducing forced overtime. Around 700 residents receive care at King, which provides them with nursing, counseling and social activities. The facility has been plagued by allegations of mismanagement.