Senate, Assembly Republican budget talks break down over how to pay for roads

MADISON — Budget talks between Wisconsin Assembly and Senate Republicans broke down Tuesday, June 27th, with leaders from both sides abruptly ending a closed-door meeting and calling each other’s position on how to pay for road construction projects “laughable.”

The current two-year budget ends on Friday, but the Republican-controlled Legislature will not pass a new one in time. Instead, current spending levels will continue while lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker struggle to reach an agreement.

The biggest remaining point of contention is how to pay for roads and major construction project, including the expansion of Interstate 39/90 from Madison to Illinois, the reconstruction of I-94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois and of the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange.

Republicans are also discussing whether to loosen income eligibility for the statewide private school voucher program and whether to reduce or eliminate the personal property tax rather than cut income taxes, as Walker wants.

Republican leaders spoke to reporters separately three times over an hour, making unusual and previously unplanned stops in the Capitol press room to lay out their positions, voice their frustrations and snipe at one another.

“I don’t know where to go anymore,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters he would support passing a budget with no increase in funding for roads if Senate Republicans and Walker refuse to consider increases to the gas tax or vehicle fees to pay for construction projects.

Fitzgerald blasted that position as “laughable” and “just ridiculous” because it would result in halting or dramatically delaying ongoing work on major interstate construction projects.

Both Fitzgerald and Vos cited a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that estimates there would be about $340 million less to spend in the coming year on major highway construction projects compared with increases proposed by Walker.

It also makes no sense to raise taxes for roads because Walker has promised to veto such an increase, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald stood by his call to borrow $850 million to pay for roads over the next two years. Walker has also voiced support for that approach.

Vos was unmovable, though, calling it a “non-starter” to pay for roads exclusively with more borrowing.

“It’s not laughable because we won’t put more spending on the credit card,” Vos said. He accused Fitzgerald of being unwilling to compromise, saying during their meeting that he “spent a lot of time talking at us, seeming angry, and then said ‘we’re done.'”

Senate and Assembly Republicans planned to meet separately and privately on Wednesday in the Capitol.

Fitzgerald said he was frustrated and worried that further delay would make Republicans — who have their largest majority in the Assembly since 1957 and their biggest in the Senate since 1971 — seem foolish for not being able to pass a budget close to on time.

“We’ll all have egg on our faces,” Fitzgerald said. “Republicans will look like we don’t know what we’re doing.”

Earlier Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker characterized the budget differences as “very minor.”

“Probably mid-July, my expectation would be that the Assembly and Senate would get a bill passed and sent to me that I can sign by the end of July. The disagreements are very minor. It’s really a matter of degree. Three areas: how much more money are we going to put into education, how much more money are we going to put into transportation, and how much more are we going to lower property taxes? Those are the areas that need to be worked out. They’re not huge gaps, and I think those are areas that people are happy about. They want more for schools, more for roads,and more for property tax relief, and now we’re just left to working out the details,” Walker said.