In the recent state budget debate, legislative Republicans made a strong push for additional funding for local roads, inserting a one-time $90 million appropriation into the budget specifically for that purpose, but a partial veto by Gov. Tony Evers not only slashed that appropriation, but removed language which restricted the use of the money.
That has GOP lawmakers fuming and fearing Evers will divert those dollars to his urban political base, contrary to legislative intent, and this past week they were threatening to try a veto override.
Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) had been a driving force behind the $90 million appropriation, and he says the budget maneuver is the latest indicator of Evers's urban bias.
"We felt very strongly that (more funding for local roads) needed to happen, and we got $90 million, so that will be real helpful for local roads," Tiffany said in an interview with The Lakeland Times last week.
But the governor's actions could nullify that intent. For one thing, the veto cut the appropriation from $90 million to $75 million.
"I am partially vetoing (the provision) in fiscal year 2019-20 and writing in a smaller amount that reduces the appropriation by $15,000,000 (general fund dollars) because I object to the magnitude of general fund dollars being utilized for transportation purposes in this budget," Evers wrote in his veto message.
Tiffany said the nature of the LRIP (local road improvement program) funding allowed the governor to use a portion of the money to fulfill his desire to increase education spending.
"Gov. Evers had to find $65 million elsewhere in the budget to apply to K-12 (schools)," he said. "So $15 million of it is coming from the $90 million the finance committee put in LRIP. He was able to do it because the LRIP allocation comes from GPR."
But Evers did more, eliminating the restrictions on where the remaining money could be used and even reserving the administration's option not to spend it at all.
"I am also requesting the Department of Administration secretary not to allot these funds," the governor wrote. "While additional investment in our local transportation needs is welcome, this provision creates yet another one-time subsidy to the transportation fund and illustrates the missed opportunity to provide a sustainable funding solution that would allow this program to be an ongoing investment in local communities without using the general fund to pay for transportation projects."
Evers said he was also partially vetoing sections to remove the limitations placed on the use of the general fund monies because he objected to the restrictions that the constraints placed on the department's ability to allocate dollars to what the administration thinks is most needed projects in the state.
"Law enforcement and firefighters across Wisconsin have called on the Legislature to address poor road conditions that are putting Wisconsinites' safety at risk," he wrote. "The effect of this partial veto will be to allow the department to prioritize the most critical transit and transportation needs."
Ultimately, the DOT announced it would send the amount of monies to towns, cities, and villages that the Legislature intended, but said the local government could use the money as they saw fit, such as for the Milwaukee trolley and bike paths.
"I'm grateful that the legislative intent behind the $90 million investment was somewhat met," state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua), said. "However, I remain concerned that projects that don't fund roads and bridges, such as funding buses, bike baths and the Milwaukee Streetcar could be approved. That was not our intention, so I will be keeping a close eye on how the department develops and evaluates criteria in awarding the grants.
Singing the city blues
Tiffany and other Republican lawmakers say the governor's decision essentially means the money will likely head for projects in Madison and Milwaukee.
"The veto allows him to spend it anywhere in the state rather than the formula-driven method of the LRIP program," Tiffany said. "I am very concerned those who are politically connected to the Evers administration will be the beneficiaries of the LRIP dollars rather than the most deserving projects throughout the state."
And that is likely in the southern half of the state, Tiffany said.
"From 27 of his 29 cabinet appointments coming from Madison and Milwaukee to gutting rural education programs to the LRIP veto, it is evident that any place north of Portage is Canada in the mind of this governor," he said.
State Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield) also expressed concern over the partial veto.
"Our local governments are in desperate need of funding to help fix their roads," Duchow said. "Over and over again we heard the governor talk about how he would fix the 'damn' roads, but this partial budget veto takes away funding that would have gone specifically to fix some of the worst roads in the state. His veto is disheartening and I feel for our local governments who will continue to face budget shortfalls."
Duchow called the veto irresponsible. She observed that the Legislature's budget tripled the LRIP aid and was more than the governor's original budget proposal.
"With the governor's partial veto, it allows the DOT to take $75 million that would have gone directly to the LRIP, as the Legislature intended, and instead prioritize which projects get funded," she said.
Like Tiffany, Duchow said she feared the funding would be diverted.
"I fear that instead of the funding going to our local governments all across Wisconsin, the cities, towns and villages who have been requesting additional funds, and are in dire need, will be overlooked as the governor potentially focuses on projects solely in Madison and Milwaukee," she said. "Rural areas, the cities and towns in the 99th district, and all across Wisconsin, are vital to Wisconsin's economy. This action will hurt those all across the state as roads continue to deteriorate."
Northwoods state Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) also criticized the veto. "I am troubled by some of the provisions he chose to veto," Felzkowski said. "I am so disappointed to see that he chose to veto $15 million in funding for local transportation aids. Rural communities, like those in my district, desperately need that funding to fix our roads."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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