Craig Thompson, Secretary-designee of the Department of Transportation, detailed plans for implementing the increase in transportation revenues approved by the legislature and signed by the governor. He also talked about a new $75 million grant program for local transportation projects that is the outcome of a partial veto related to what originally was a $90 million designation for local road projects.
Friday's first speaker was Joel Brennan, whose department serves the other 16 state agencies, oversees 6700 state buildings, and in responsible for tribal relations and indian gaming. Brennan joined state government after 11 years as President & CEO of Discovery World in Milwaukee, and previous service as head of Milwaukee's Redevelopment Authority and as Vice President of Development and Government Affairs for the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"A lot of good things came out of this budget," said Brennan. "If the Governor had vetoed the whole budget, we'd be having a very different conversation. That would have been politics as usual. The Governor was more interested in moving the ball forward."
Brennan especially highlighted the state capital budget, which at $1.9 billion is almost double what's been allocated in each of several previous budgets. Despite the State Building Commission earlier declining to make recommendations, he credited the legislature with agreeing to a capital budget making important investments, especially the $1 billion to the University of Wisconsin System that includes $109 million for the UW Science Building being developed in partnership with Mayo Clinic Health System.
"Over the next few years, it's going to be valuable not only for UW and UW-Eau Claire, but for the economy here," he said.
Brennan also pointed out the increased investments in K-12 education which, while less than originally proposed by the Governor, add $330 million in general aids and almost $100 million to special education.
"We added about $100 million with the creative use of the line item veto," he said, which he suggested translates into over $700,000 for Eau Claire schools and $100,000 for Altoona.
Other budget investments Brennan touted were the additional $25 million for the Technical College System and $48 million for rural broadband.
Corrections reform is next
Finally, Brennan said that corrections reform will be a major priority of the administration, pointing out that Minnesota, a state of similar size, has less than half as many individuals incarcerated than Wisconsin. He pointed to lessons that could be learned from other states who have reduced their jail populations, including Michigan, which has achieved a 25% reduction over the past eight years. He said the Governor would be assembling a bi-partisan task force to look at how success in other states like South Carolina and Texas can be applied here.
During the Q&A period at the end, Brennan was asked about the Governor's partial veto of an appropriation for regional mental health beds at hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, included in the legislature's version of the budget so patients wouldn't need to be taken across the state for treatment. Brennan said he was not fully aware of the reasons, although he reiterated the Governor's proposal to accept federal Medicaid dollars, which he maintained would help solve similar issues. Moderator Scott Rogers asked Brennan if he would follow up to get a response from the Evers administration regarding the question.
In approaching the new state budget, Thompson pointed out that Governor Evers had made transportation a key issue in his election campaign. "In all my years, no candidate for Governor had run on transportation and made it a core issue," he noted. Before being nominated to his current post, Thompson served as Executive Director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, and has spoken at Eau Claire Chamber events several times in the past.
He said the new budget fulfills a priority to "focus on fixing what we have first," including a $320 million increase in highway maintenance, a proposal that was also endorsed by the Republican legislature in the final budget. He pointed out that it also included a 10% increase in general transportation aids to local governments. "The priorities we put forward in our budget largely stayed intact," he asserted.
How additional transportation revenues will be raised turned out differently in the budget than what the Governor had proposed, who had asked for an 8-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase, and a return to indexing, which would have generated about $600 million in new revenue. Thompson noted that the state's other major tax generators, the income and sales tax, move up naturally in revenue because they are percentage based, while transportation funding sources are at fixed rates. Instead of passing a gas tax increase, however, the legislature sent the budget to the Governor with a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees and a $95 increase in title fees, which will generate about $390 million.
"That $390 million is still $390 million more than we've had" before, since transportation revenues have not been increased for several years, while the state bonded and continued to increase the percentage devoted to debt service.
$75 million local grant program announced
One of the more controversial partial vetoes applied by Governor Evers was his revision of a $90 million one-time general funds transfer to transportation that the legislature had designated would go to the Local Road Improvement Program (LRIP), with specified percentages to counties, towns and cities. Evers reduced the number to $75 million, and deleted the designation language to give WisDOT the ability to determine how to allocate the funds. Thompson said the $15 million reduction was to partially fund the increased per pupil education funding created by the Governor's partial veto in another part of the budget.
Thompson said that WisDOT is creating a grant program for the $75 million fund that local governments can apply for to use for local transportation projects, with the same percentage allocations among the counties, cities and towns that had been specified in the original budget. Those figures are $23 million to counties, $19 million for villages and cities, and $29 million to towns. He said the program would give local governments flexibility for the modes and types of projects to which to apply the funds, and "by taking it out of the LRIP, we can get it out much more directly to projects." When Thompson announced the grant program last Thursday, he was joined in support of the program by representatives of Wisconsin County Highway Association, League of Wisconsin Municipalities and Wisconsin Towns Association.
Thompson also discussed the investments the state is making in transit and passenger rail, including beefing up the number of daily trains between Milwaukee and Chicago on the popular Amtrak Hiawatha service that the state supports, and the addition of dedicated bus connections from those trains to Fond du lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay. He said the business community strongly supports the improvements in service, noting that a recent news conference held by WisDOT included SC Johnson, Case IH and Miller Coors representatives talking about its importance in attracting and retaining talent.
(See below for a link to Thompson's visuals with more details from his presentation.)
Link to download PowerPoint with Craig Thompson's WisDOT visuals
State officials talk local construction projects from state budget (WEAU 13 News)
Secretaries respond to budget critics (Leader-Telegram)
Evers Administration Unveils $75M Grant Program For Local Transportation Projects (Wisconsin Public Radio)
Vos, Fitz talk override of Evers transpo veto (WisPolitics.com)
Monthly Eggs & Issues breakfasts
The Eggs & Issues monthly governmental affairs series is one of the Chamber’s Business Advocacy Events. Investors include: Partner level, Xcel Energy; Advocate level, Miron Construction, and Supporter level, Banbury Place/Cigan Properties, Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, and HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals.
The next breakfast will be Friday, August 16, at the Lismore Hotel, and will feature a discussion on Tackling Local Housing Challenges.
Posted by Scott Rogers, Governmental Affairs & Workforce Director