Transportation and other state budget issues took center stage Friday as area legislators highlighted their priorities at a legislative breakfast sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is proposing an 8-cent per gallon gas tax increase to fund transportation issues.
State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said he only met one constituent during last fall’s campaign who was firmly against a modest gas tax increase. He believes most people would support an 8-cent increase.
But James warns people not to get their hopes up as far as addressing all the major transportation issues in the next budget.
“I don’t think a long-term fix will be determined in this budget for transportation,” he said. “We will discuss gas taxes, registration fees and tolling, but I don’t know how it is all going to play out.”
State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, supports Evers’ proposal to increase state aid for highway rehabilitation, which would mean an increase in aid for local units of government.
“I’m absolutely on that page,” he said.
Evers’ proposed $83.4 billion 2019-21 state budget calls for about $6 billion more in spending than Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s last budget.
Transportation would be a good area to use some of that extra spending but state Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, warns that the next state budget won’t have an extra $6 billion in spending after it is enacted.
“I know we are going to eliminate a lot of the spending increases,” he said of the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
A gas tax increase “is a good starting point to figure out how we are going to go from there,” Summerfeld said, adding that the Legislature also needs to examine the possibility of toll roads and addressing potential increases in vehicle registration fees.
Summerfield said he is supportive of putting additional money into broadband expansion for rural areas of Wisconsin, which would benefit both school districts and small businesses.
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said she is encouraged by Evers’ proposal for increased foster care funding and automatic voter registration “but the devil’s in the details.”
And regardless of how it is done, additional funding is needed for transportation, she said.
“It’s the local and county roads that are suffering the most,” Bernier said. “We have to do something.”
State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she dreads her weekly trips from here to Madison on Interstate 94, and hopes more emphasis can be placed on mass transit, bicycle trails and a rail system.
“I would be thrilled if there was some train I could hop on and not pay a gas tax,” she said.
Emerson noted that Evers held listening sessions with state residents to get feedback on what should be in the next state budget.
“This is something that hasn’t happened in a very long time,” she said. “It’s a very different budget under Gov. Evers. We are calling it the peoples’ budget. I hope it brings people together.”
Petryk would like to see job creation play a more significant role in Evers’ budget.
“The word workforce hasn’t come up. I will make it my No. 1 priority going forward,” he said. “We have to get people the skills they need for the jobs that are out there.”
Summerfield does have one concern about the proposed budget.
“This budget is quite Madison/Milwaukee-centric,” he said. “We have to make sure rural Wisconsin is not forgotten in this budget.”
James doesn’t support the governor’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates to attend college after living here just three years.
Veterans moving to Wisconsin have to wait five years before they are eligible for in-state tuition, he said.
“There’s some disparity there,” James said. “We need to take care of our veterans.”
Emerson likes the investment in education and government fairness through proposed nonpartisan redistricting, two items that are included in Evers’ budget.
“This is a forward-thinking budget,” she said.