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Walker, Fitzgerald oppose separating roads budget

Wisconsin State Capitol (WLUK/Don Steffens)

MADISON (AP) -- Gov. Scott Walker joined Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Thursday in denouncing separating transportation funding from the state budget, saying there's no reason to take that unusual approach to break an impasse in the Republican-controlled Legislature over how to pay for roads.

The Republican co-chairs of the budget committee said Thursday they were open to that idea, which Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos discussed in a private meeting Wednesday. But Fitzgerald and Walker were quick to reject the idea.

Separating roads funding could allow Republicans to craft a transportation plan that might have support from Democrats while the rest of the budget -- which is unlikely to have Democratic backing -- would be voted on separately. Pulling the roads budget out into a separate bill could make it more difficult to pass because it would require lawmakers to take a stand on transportation issues separately, rather than as part of the much larger budget. But it could also make passing it easier if Republicans can convince Democrats to support their approach. Republicans control the Senate 20-13 and the Assembly 64-35.

Fitzgerald said road funding is "deeply tied" to the overall $76 billion budget and trying to vote on it separately "will only muddy the funding picture of the budget as a whole."

"It is challenging enough to gather member support for one budget bill," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "If the Republicans are taking up a separate transportation package outside the rest of the state budget and relying on Democrat votes to get it passed, it clearly means we're in trouble."

Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson said "There's no reason why they can't get this done through the normal budget process. He said Walker was willing to work with the Legislature on a solution as long as it doesn't raise taxes. Vos did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the idea.

Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the budget committee, told reporters Thursday she hoped to come up with a road-funding plan that would win Democratic support.

"It's not going to be easy, I'm not going to sugar coat it," she said.

Democratic lawmakers have complained that they are not being included in talks with Republicans over how to fund roads.

Republicans who control the Legislature have not been able to agree with one another, or with Walker, on how to plug a projected $1 billion funding gap in the roads budget. Walker has proposed borrowing $500 million and delaying major highway construction projects. The Assembly plan would apply the sales tax to gas, cut the gas tax and requirement that retailers charge a certain amount for fuel, while also restructuring the income tax code. Fitzgerald and Walker have both said they oppose that plan.

Fitzgerald said Wednesday that the Senate was considering borrowing tied to the state's main account, rather than the transportation fund as is done now, coupled with pursuing toll roads as a more long-term solution.

Evenson called Walker's proposal -- which would increase borrowing by $500 million and delay construction projects -- as a middle ground between what the Senate and Assembly want.

With numerous options now public, "we have to start discussing them seriously," Darling said.

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