Roadbuilders warn against borrowing in their behalf

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Two developments are providing twists in the budget drama unfolding at the State Capitol.

First, the road-building industry is suggesting that spending be cut back if government is unwilling to raise taxes or fees to cover mounting transportation debt. The industry isn’t buying Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to borrow $1.3 billion to pay for transportation-related building and spending.

Second, the Menominee Indian tribe offered a $300-million package to help build a new stadium in Milwaukee for a professional basketball team. Walker has proposed $220 million in taxpayer- financed bonding to help build the stadium.

The tribe’s offer assumed the governor would shift gears and approve its plan for a huge state-of-the-art gambling casino at the old Dairyland dog track in Kenosha County. Walker turned down the casino plan recently in part because of the threat of losing gambling payments from the Potawatomi nation, which operates a casino in Milwaukee.

The Menominee offer was a long shot at best. The Walker administration had continued to claim former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was responsible for the casino turn-down. He had signed an agreement in which the Potawatomi agreed to higher payments to the state in turn for expanded gambling and apparent protection against nearby competition.

The Menominee tribe wasn’t buying the Walker administration blame attempt. In a letter to Walker, the Menominee nation said a Bureau of Indian Affairs decision on Jan. 19 eliminated any problems with the Doyle agreement.

The Menominee tribe asked to meet with Walker noting, “ We have been unable to schedule a meeting with you since October 2013, more than a year ago.”

The state is facing budget problems and the Potawatomi had withheld its payments to the state while Walker mulled a decision on the Kenosha casino idea. The budget problems may stem from overly optimistic revenue estimates and a flurry of tax breaks in the last biennial budget. Rejection of $206 million in Medicaid money from the federal government also plays a major role in the budget situation.

Economic development offi- cials in Zion, Ill., just a few miles south of the Wisconsin border, were watching the casino situation unfold. They noted the City of Zion has several hundred acres of land available for a casino site. The land is 20 minutes away from the Dairyland dog track site. They said the casino would provide “an additional 3,300 good paying jobs and 1,400 construction jobs.”

The irony is that Walker has been trying to lure business and jobs (with the accompanying tax revenue) from Illinois to Wisconsin.

There also is irony in Walker’s plan to borrow another $1.3 billion through bonds to pay for road projects. Walker has long been critical of previous Democratic administrations for bonding to pay for road construction.

The road builders’ position was spelled out by Pat Gross, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Association.

“If it is the will of the Legislature to not provide more funding, then our preference would be to cut,” Gross said. “It is a dangerous proposition (for our members), but it’s the responsible thing and it’s the right thing.”

Republican legislative leaders say an increase in the per-gallon gasoline tax is unlikely. Probably the word “tax” scares conservatives. President Ronald Reagan got around that hang-up when he approved a federal gas tax boost by calling it a “user fee.”

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