Senate Republicans who once hated borrowing now embrace it

MADISON — Senate Republicans who strongly opposed borrowing money to pay for Wisconsin’s roads now back a plan to do just that by issuing $712 million in additional bonds, which has been a major obstacle to reaching a budget deal.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos emerged from a 90-minute meeting with Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Wednesday saying that negotiations are continuing, but no deal had been reached. He also blasted Senate Republicans for supporting $712 million in borrowing for roads, saying putting that much on the state’s credit card “doesn’t make any sense.”

Senate Republicans used to agree.

In June 2015, budget committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, called bonding in the transportation budget “unsustainable” and said she agreed with Assembly Republicans then that it “must be reduced.”

“We’re not going to kick the can down the road,” Darling said in November 2015 when she and five other Senate Republicans voted against issuing $350 million in bonds to pay for five major highway projects.

The borrowing was approved on a 10-6 vote, with Assembly Republicans and Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee in support and GOP senators against.

Sen. Howard Marklein, also a member of the budget committee who voted against the borrowing two years ago, said then that he didn’t think the state should take on more debt without having created new revenue sources to pay it down.

Both Darling and Marklein were at a Tuesday news conference with Senate Republicans speaking in favor of the $712 million in additional borrowing to deal with the state’s projected $1 billion transportation funding gap.

They weren’t the only Republicans on the budget committee who have had a change of heart.

Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany said in 2015 that solving the transportation funding problem required more revenue, which is what the Assembly is calling for now but the Senate and Walker have rejected. Sen. Sheila Harsdorf called the level of borrowing then “unsustainable” and advocated for reductions, not increases as the Senate wants now. And Sen. Luther Olsen said he was “dead against” any borrowing that would be repaid with money from the state’s general fund. This year, the Senate plan calls for backing $350 million in borrowing from that fund.

Vos has said if Walker and Senate Republicans won’t agree to higher taxes or fees to pay for roads, then spending should be held flat. But that would lead to considerable delays to ongoing interstate, highway and local road projects that rely on state funding across Wisconsin.

Vos said he, Fitzgerald and Walker talked about “different ideas” to break the budget impasse, but no deal was struck and negotiations will continue.

“We didn’t go into any great depth about specifics,” Vos said. He said Assembly Republicans needed more time to absorb the Senate GOP plan and “find the common ground between where the Senate believes they need to be and the Assembly needs to be.”

Fitzgerald left the meeting without speaking to reporters. His spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said he had left the Capitol and wasn’t available for comment.

The budget is 19 days late. Spending will continue at its current pace while lawmakers search for a deal.

“Rather than doing their job, Senate Republicans continue to mislead the public and flip-flop whenever it’s politically convenient,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said in a news release Wednesday. “Wisconsin families want a long-term funding solution and they’re tired of the political games that Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are playing.”