Friday, September 16, 2016

WisDOT budget- trying to adjust to the bad options

In light of most Wisconsin agencies submitting their budget requests yesterday, I wanted to talk a bit about the state’s Transportation budget, which got a good deal of attention in the press (you can click here to dig into the 331-page document if you want).

I’ll start off by forwarding a good video from Wisconsin Eye’s Steven Walters and Wispolitics’ JR Ross summarizing the DOT’s budget request- at least the main items dealing with highways and the political issues involved. It’s interesting to hear Ross openly mention that many think Governor Walker won’t run for a third term in 2018, and it’s causing conflict with GOP legislators who realize they might be left with Scotty’s mess if needs or deficits are not dealt with in the next 2 years. I can't embed it, but I recommend a click and a watch on it.

(Oh, and after the first 10 minutes on transportation, there is some good John Doe talk. With these guys being jaded insiders, they can’t be too honest about how disgusting and crooked John Doe is, nor can they admit that it’s huge for people to be able to see the actual crookedness documented in print ).

Anyway, back to the Transportation budget request. I actually approve of the concept of moving move funds into local road aids and highway maintenance over new expressway projects, as the lack of local aids is a big reason so many places in Wisconsin either have wheel taxes or are considering them. I did find it sadly funny to hear the Mayor of Wausau say “Oh NOW you want to raise local aids, Governor?,” noting that he would not have asked for their $20 wheel tax on November’s ballot if these local aids had already been boosted, or at least was promised to be. This is the classic Walker pattern of “neglect and ignore….then overreact suddenly!,” and the mark of incompetent leaders in all fields.

On the downside, if you thought the potholes and road construction delays were bad now on Wisconsin freeways, YIKES! Blowing off the work around Verona Road, delaying the Zoo Interchange, and not doing as much around I-94 in Racine and Kenosha mean that the most-traveled freeways in Wisconsin are going to be an absolute mess in the coming years. I know that sounds contradictory when I mentioned my approval of more funding for locals vs new projects, but that’s a whole lot different than refusing to finish the projects that you started, and driving up more costs and delays in the process. It’s a lose-lose strategy as far as I’m concerned.

There’s also an interesting trick that the Walker Administration is going to consolidate all borrowing into one big pool. Check this part around page 163
Revenues to the Transportation Fund are not growing fast enough to fully support the state’s share of improvements to the highway infrastructure. Bonding, with debt service funded by the Transportation Fund, enables the State to continue key investments without significant transportation user fee increases. Because highway infrastructure projects have a significant service life, bonding shares the cost of these projects between present and future users.

The SHR (State Highway Rehabilitation) Program funds reconstruction, preservation, service life extension and safety enhancements on Wisconsin’s state trunk and connecting highways, including the Interstate system. The SHR programfunds highway and bridge improvements on more than 11,800 miles of state trunk and connecting highways, including the Interstate system, constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Currently TRBs (Transportation Revenue Bonds) are authorized only for the Majors program. Expanding their use to the SHR program will give the Department flexibility in determining which funding sources to use in each project situation.
A similar consolidation of funding is done between federal and state contributions to major projects. Maybe this is all OK, but I’d be interested to see if the US DOT thinks the same (remember when Walker tried to pill the “federal rail money can be used for highways” argument after turning down the high-speed rail money, and promptly got slapped down?)

And even with the delays and changes in borrowing, we still keep racking up additional debt, to the tune of around $500 million total in this next budget, and the amount to pay off that debt explodes compared to the recently-completed fiscal year, crowding out payments that can be made from the Transportation Fund.

Debt service, Transportation Fund
2015-16 $114.4 million
2016-17 adjusted base $149.3 million
2017-18 $158.6 million
2018-19 $170.4 million
CHANGE FROM 2015-16 +$56.0 MILLION (+48.9%)

The same type of added expense happens in DOT debt that used General Fund money, to the tune of an additional $12 million a year that has to be paid off in the next budget. And that trend of increasing debt payments won’t go away soon if Walker’s fantasy of “no taxes + no fees” is allowed to stand.

Oh, and there’s this one little item buried back around page 264. The Wisconsin DOT has suffered revenue losses in recent years because of side effects from WisGOP Legislators passing the voter ID law, because the IDs have to be free to avoid being an illegal poll tax.
Prior to the passage of Act 23, there were two conditions which allowed the issuance of an ID card at no cost to the applicant. In general, ID cards at no cost to the applicant are available if the Department cancels the valid driver’s license after an exam related to health conditions which may impair a driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. In addition, the Department may issue an ID card at no cost if a driver surrenders their license for health related reasons.

As can be seen in Table 1, total revenues from ID card issuance declined from almost $3.2 million in FY 10 to $437,000 in FY 15, or slightly more than 86 percent. FY 10 was the last full year prior to the implementation of providing free IDs for voting. Revenues for FY 13 reflects the first full year of ID card revenue as affected by the provision of free IDs for voting.
So how is the Walker Administration proposing to make some of these funds back? By turning out a two-tiered system of ID cards that’ll cost more money to both taxpayers and those who want IDs, and confuse people in the process!
The Department has a multi-year contract with a vendor to produce driver licenses and identification cards. Under the current contract, each license or ID issued costs $3.10 per card. The Department proposes issuing “Voting Purposes Only,” IDs on card stock which does not contain all of the security features included in a REAL-ID compliant ID card. As a result, the cost per card under this proposal would decrease to $2.60 per card. In order to implement this provision computer systems at the vendor and at DMV will need to be modified at an estimated one-time cost of $164,200 with nine months needed to implement the changes.

In FY 2015, an average of 8,047 free ID cards were issued each month. If free IDs were specially marked for voting purposes, the Department assumes 30 percent of applicants will opt for an ID which requires payment. Based on FY 2015 data, the proposal would result in additional revenues to the transportation fund of $194,000 in FY 18 and $775,800 in FY 19.
Or maybe we can just dump this voter ID silliness and go back to the system that worked in the state for decades and resulted in one of the highest voter turnout rates in America. But why do common sense?

Other than that “What the fuck?” provision on Voter IDs, there’s not any huge policy items that I saw in this budget request. Past neglect and poses by Gov Walker and WisGOP put us in this mess, and there’s no easy way out of it. Given that scenario, and given Walker’s desire to care more about Grover Norquist than Wisconsin drivers and businesses, this combination of less road work and slightly lowered borrowing along with more local aids isn’t as awful as I thought we might see. But it’s still not acceptable.

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