Traffic weaves through a construction zone on Verona Road near the Beltline Highway in Madison in this 2014 file photo. 


Leaders of the state Legislature's budget-writing committee said Tuesday they have a plan to resolve the most contentious area of the state's overdue budget: how to fund Wisconsin's roads and bridges.

The plan slightly trims Gov. Scott Walker's road-borrowing blueprint, imposes a new fee on electric and hybrid vehicles and moves the state closer to collecting highway tolls, according to the committee's co-chairpersons, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling.

Nygren, R-Marinette, told reporters the finance committee would take up a transportation budget plan late Tuesday. That would be followed, he said, by a tax plan and a catch-all legislative proposal, the contents of which are not yet known.

The ambitious timeline calls for lawmakers to resolve, in the next few hours, a budget standoff that has dragged on for months, blowing past the state's July 1 budget deadline.

Should the finance committee pass the bills, they would head to the full Senate and Assembly, where they likely would be passed as-is.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday if the budget plan would delay any highway projects currently under construction. 

Nygren said the plan won't cause additional delays beyond what was proposed in Gov. Scott Walker's budget. He specifically said it would not delay an ongoing expansion of Verona Road in Fitchburg, south of the Madison Beltline.

But transportation advocacy and road-building groups questioned how that is possible.

"If the numbers and bonding levels are what we're hearing ... I just don't see any way that you can't have delays," said Patrick Goss, director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

Nygren said Tuesday that the budget plan includes about $410 million in borrowing for roads and bridges, slightly less than Walker's plan, which called for $500 million.

Of the $410 million in borrowing in the legislative plan, $252 million would go to a project to expand and rebuild U.S. Interstate 94 south of Milwaukee. Walker's budget provided just $31 million for the project. 

Nygren did not definitively respond when asked if the budget plan would cut funding for road rehabilitation projects, which involve resurfacing and maintenance of existing highways. Walker's budget increased funding for such projects by about $3.6 million. 

Nygren said the plan will impose new state registration fees of $100 for electric vehicles and $75 for hybrid vehicles. 

Walker first publicly acknowledged last month that he and lawmakers were considering a new fee on electric and hybrid vehicles in this budget.

Tolling in plans

The budget plan also will enable the state Department of Transportation to seek federal approval to begin tolling federal highways in the state, according to Nygren and Darling. If federal permission is granted, the provision requires DOT to seek approval from state lawmakers to proceed with tolling, Darling said.

Nygren cast the agreement as a fiscally responsible approach to the state's road-funding woes.

"This budget shows youâre not going to make a commitment that you canât pay for," Nygren said.

At the same time, Nygren called it "disappointing" that the measure doesn't reconcile the state's transportation funding ledger for the long term, as Assembly Republicans sought.

âIâm concerned today where weâre going to be two years from now" when the next budget is crafted, Nygren said.

Nygren said the budget committee also aims, as soon as Tuesday, to take up taxes, the other major unresolved budget area, and a "wrap-up motion." That refers to a grab-bag of legislative odds and ends that, in past years, has been deeply controversial.

Two years ago, as part of the last state budget, such a motion proposed a sweeping curtailment of state open-records requirements. Lawmakers quickly removed that provision amid a fierce, bipartisan public backlash.

Nygren said this year's wrap-up motion will be far less extensive.

âThereâs really not a lot of issues in there other than technical changes,â Nygren said.

Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who sits on the finance committee, has said lobbyists for the state's rent-to-own industry have boosted lobbying efforts in recent days to convince lawmakers to relax consumer protections on the industry.

Nygren said Tuesday that he generally supports such provisions being included in the wrap-up motion.

Impact of Verona Road construction

Earlier in the day, business owners on Verona Road told reporters in a press conference that they fear how prospective delays to the project could affect their bottom lines.

The project's first phase expanded the Madison Beltline near Verona Road. Its second -- and current -- phase is expanding Verona Road from Raymond Road to just south of McKee Road-County PD, while also replacing that intersection with a highway interchange.

Deirdre Garton, co-owner of Quivey's Grove, said business at her restaurant has declined by 20 percent in the last year as construction on nearby Verona Road has ramped up.

DOT plans for the project to be done in 2020. If that date is delayed, "we would have to do some major cutbacks in terms of expenses," Garton said.

Dale Benjamin, president of Benjamin Plumbing, and Michael Minkoff, owner of General Beverage, also said the project is affecting their businesses' profitability. Project delays could exacerbate the impact, they said.

The cycle for the current overdue budget began July 1 and goes through June 2019. In that span, the state faces a transportation funding shortfall that, by one measure, is about $1 billion.

To fill part of that gap, Assembly Republicans pushed for new revenue for the state transportation fund, likely through a gas tax or vehicle fee increase. But Senate Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker resisted, except for the relatively small amount of revenue expected to be generated by the electric-hybrid fee hike.

Assembly Republicans countered by saying Walker's proposed level of transportation borrowing will need to be reduced because, without more revenue, the state can't afford it.


Mark Sommerhauser | Wisconsin State Journal

Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.