Elections Are Over

By Bob Cook | September 28, 2010

Executive Director, Transportation Development Association

Election Day brought a lot of change to state and federal government. While the election did not diminish the challenges we face funding transportation in Wisconsin, it does have a modest impact on the political environment in which we work for solutions.

Governor Doyle was elected to a second term. While he has stated that he does not intend to raid the transportation fund again, he is still facing a general fund deficit in excess of $1 billion. Commitments to education and a balanced budget without tax increases were hallmarks of his campaign. These are the same conditions that led to the raids in the last two budgets.

A Democrat majority in the state Senate may afford some opportunities. Senator Roger Breske, an outspoken transportation supporter, will likely return as chair of the Transportation Committee. Senator Russ Decker, an industry advocate, will co-chair the budget writing Joint Finance Committee. Ten of the 13 Senate votes in opposition to the repeal of indexing were cast by Democrats. Democrat leaders in the Senate have not dismissed the possibility of revenue increases for transportation and have been willing to keep an open mind while the Road to the Future Committee completes its work. However, any Senate initiatives will have to be meshed with the anti-tax message coming from the governor and Republicans controlling the Assembly.

While the Republican majority in the Assembly has been reduced, they remain firmly in control. There can be no increase in transportation investment without the compliance of Assembly Republicans. The lesson many Republicans have taken from the recent election is that voters abandoned them because they abandoned their fundamental principals with respect to less spending, lower taxes and smaller government. This may reinforce Republican resolve to oppose any tax or fee increase for transportation no matter how great the need. However, the challenge in the Assembly is not fundamentally different for transportation advocates than it was prior to the election.

A solution to the $700-million annual funding shortfall for transportation is going to require a broad coalition to enable a bipartisan compromise. A divided legislature may afford moderates in each body the opportunity to work together to address the transportation problem.

In Washington, D.C., Democrat control of the House probably elevates Congressman Obey to chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, but it precludes Congressman Petri from chairing the Transportation Committee.

The Appropriations Committee provides the funding for authorized programs in the annual federal budget. In other words, the committee controls federal spending. The chairman has historically been in a position to improve federal spending in his home district or state if they so choose. However, it is important to remember that one of the reasons Republicans lost the House was the backlash over parochial spending or earmarks. In addition, there is not a lot of extra money left in the federal treasury to be spread around. As a result, Congressman Obey may be precluded from providing a lot of extra benefits to Wisconsin.

While there is no substitute for being a chairman, Congressman Petri will still be influential on the Transportation Committee. Minority leaders for each committee will be appointed by Republican leaders prior to the start of the new congress. Congressman Petri has a legitimate claim on the ranking minority position in the Transportation Committee. If Petri is not ranking minority member of the full committee, he is all but assured of being appointed ranking minority member of the powerful Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee. As the ranking member of the subcommittee, he is still considered one of the "big four" (chairman, ranking member, subcommittee chair, subcommittee ranking member) and will have a seat at the table during all meaningful legislative negotiations. In addition, Congressman Petri has a solid relationship with the likely chair of the committee, Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.).