By Scott Bauer
MADISON, Wis. — Allowing open-road tolling on Wisconsin’s interstates is the only viable way to raise state money to match whatever federal funding could be coming for transportation, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told county officials Wednesday.
President Donald Trump last month called on Congress to approve a $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure plan that likely would require states to put up some money to receive the federal funds. Trump’s plan would rely on state and local governments working with private investors to come up with much of the cash.
Republican legislative leaders have long been supportive of tolling in Wisconsin and they reiterated that again Wednesday. Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday that while he would be open to tolling if there’s a corresponding tax decrease, he’s “not in any way suggesting support” for it.
As with increasing the gas tax, Walker said he would only consider raising money from tolling if there is an equal or greater tax reduction elsewhere. And should Congress actually approve an infrastructure funding bill, Walker said he was confident the state could come up with whatever match is necessary, even without tolling or higher gas taxes.
Fitzgerald said Wednesday there was not enough support in the Senate to pass a gas tax increase or vehicle registration fee increases.
“The only way that we are going to be able to do this and the only way that makes sense is open road tolling,” Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin would need federal approval to implement tolling. But Walker last year vetoed $2.5 million for a study into the possibility of tolling in the state. Walker said at the time of the veto that the state could move ahead with tolling without the study.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who appeared with Fitzgerald at the Wisconsin Counties Association event, has been a longtime backer of tolling as part of a way to raise money for roads in Wisconsin.
“We can all vote for tolling, it’s a good idea, it’s the future,” Vos said.
The Legislature is racing to finish its business for the year. Fitzgerald said he expects “chaos” over the next several weeks and he would not guarantee that several Walker’s top priorities would pass during the final push.
There’s little time for the Legislature to act. The Assembly plans to meet five days in February while the Senate will be in session on Feb. 20 and possibly only one day beyond that.
Vos said Republicans were on the “cusp of a potential agreement” on a juvenile justice overhaul along the lines of what Walker proposed. It would result in juvenile inmates being removed from the troubled Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prison complex in Irma, north of Wausau. Fitzgerald said the major issue in reaching a deal is determining who would run new juvenile prisons Walker envisioned, the state or counties.
Vos said he hoped to announce a deal early next week under which the most serious juvenile offenders would be in one or two state-run prisons and the others would be housed elsewhere in prisons run in whole or part by the counties.
Walker told the county officials they may be given more control over the prisons, but the plan would only work if all 72 counties were onboard. He said he’s calling for the Legislature to overhaul the system before it adjourns for the year.
Neither Vos nor Fitzgerald would say whether Walker’s proposal to give tax breaks to Kimberly-Clark in an effort to save 600 jobs in the Neenah area slated for elimination would pass. Walker said he understood that offering tax breaks to Kimberly-Clark could lead to other businesses seeking the same deal. But he defended it, saying that keeping the benefits offered to Kimberly-Clark tied to job creation would cause a beneficial ripple effect across the economy.
Fitzgerald said he thought Walker was open to compromising on his proposed $100-per child tax rebate. Vos it was too early to tell whether it would pass.
Vos and Fitzgerald agreed that a measure that’s a priority of counties and local governments will not pass this year. That’s a proposal to remove the so-called “dark stores” loophole to force mega-retailers like Menards to pay more in local property taxes. Fitzgerald said the issue was complicated and needs more study before the Legislature acts.