State budget talks have stalled in Madison, as has happened in the past. Wisconsin lawmakers hope to pass a two-year spending plan by June 30, but it appears unlikely.
The biggest problem the state faces is a $1 billion hole in its transportation budget; Gov. Walker and fellow Republicans who control the Legislature differ on how to plug it. The state collects money through its gas tax and vehicle registration fee. The state gas tax is 31 cents per gallon, while the registration fee is $75 per vehicle.
When it comes to how Wisconsin spends that money, it puts about 56 percent toward highway projects, 16 percent toward local roads and much of the rest helps pay down debt and fund mass transit. Gov. Walker has proposed a combination of borrowing and delaying some projects in order to fill the billion dollar gap. And he has continued to warn legislators that he will veto any budget that boosts the gas tax or registration fees, unless lawmakers can come up with tax savings in another area.
Republican legislative leaders say all options are on the table, including increasing taxes and fees, even setting up tolls. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been advocating for years that the state set up tolls on its interstates, but the proposal has not gone anywhere. The state released a study a few months ago; it estimates that tolls could generate $370 million per year.
Recently, both Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Gov. Walker have said, for the first time, that they’re open to the idea. However, Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Joint Finance committee, says there is no consensus on the issue. She says Republicans met behind closed doors last week and don’t accept tolls as a viable strategy for solving Wisconsin’s transportation deficit.
Another issue that has surfaced is how to fund K-12 education. Gov. Walker has proposed an increase for K-12 schools totaling $650 million and, at first, it looked as though his plan would have no problem getting through Joint Finance. Then, Assembly Republicans floated a different plan; it would cut $90 million from what Walker had proposed and allow lower-spending districts to increase property taxes to cover the difference. Walker immediately balked and reminded lawmakers of his pledge to keep property taxes lower than they were in 2014, and he vowed to veto any budget that includes an increase.
If there’s no budget by June 30, it’s not a big deal. Lawmakers like to shoot for it, but if nothing passes by June 30, state government continues to operate at current spending levels. Two years ago, lawmakers were in a stalemate over funding for the new Bucks arena and didn’t pass a new state budget until mid-July.