Fitzgerald, Vos at odds over potential of overriding Walker on gas tax

Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Thursday his Senate GOP caucus doesn’t have the votes right now to pass a gas tax hike and downplayed the suggestion lawmakers could override a pledged veto by Gov. Scott Walker.

Speaker Robin Vos, however, said all options remain on the table for his caucus when it comes to transportation funding and that it’s “irresponsible” to rule out a veto override when the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government.

Vos, R-Rochester, also expressed frustration with Walker’s tweet Wednesday night vowing to veto any gas tax increase, accusing the guv of switching positions on a revenue upper for transportation. And he called DOT Secretary Dave Ross “delusional” for telling the Joint Finance Committee the transportation fund doesn’t have a revenue problem.

“I’m waiting for an actual rock-hard position that I can trust people to stick with, and I haven’t seen that yet,” Vos said. “The Senate doesn’t have a position. The governor gave his position, and then he switched it. I want to make sure the current one is the one he’s going to stick with.”

Vos was referencing Walker’s past comments that he would veto any gas tax or registration fee increase without a corresponding tax cut elsewhere. The guv in recent months has ramped up his opposition to a gas tax hike, saying in his State of the State address Wisconsin has enough revenue for transportation, and then issuing Wednesday night’s veto threat.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson doubled down on the guv’s veto threat.

“Governor Walker is a conservative reformer and is no fan of tax increases,” he said. “The speaker can trust that Governor Walker will veto any attempt to increase the gas tax, which is already one of the highest in the country.”

The state’s gas tax is 30.9 cents per gallon.

The latest shots over transportation funding following Wednesday night’s Joint Finance Committee meeting, where Sen. Luther Olsen suggested his caucus may be ready to support a gas tax hike.

That prompted a rebuke from Whitewater GOP Sen. Steve Nass, who said Olsen doesn’t speak for him on the gas tax, adding: “I am standing with the middle class taxpayers and Governor Walker in opposing a gas tax increase in the 2017-19 state budget.”

Thursday, Olsen said in an interview clarified he was not “expounding our caucus is going to raise taxes.”

“I think what we’re looking at is we need to figure out this transportation budget for this year, two years and in the future,” the Ripon Republican said. “But the first year we have to figure out what the problem is, and that’s really what we’re driving at is: what is the problem, what are the needs and what are the revenues we can take to meet the needs over time? And so that’s my biggest concern.”

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he spoke with Olsen Thursday morning and the lawmaker wasn’t trying to misrepresent the caucus position during a back and forth with Walker’s DOT secretary

Fitzgerald also said lawmakers need to continue looking for solutions “outside of the box” on transportation funding because he doesn’t see enough support in his caucus for a revenue increase.

Fitzgerald declined to give any possibilities of new approaches for transportation funding other than saying he would like to deal with mega projects “in a unique way” that would fund them while still taking care of road work outstate.

He said there’s no chance his caucus would override Walker if he vetoed a gas tax hike and noted how rare it is for the Legislature to override a guv. The last time it happened was 1985 under Dem Tony Earl, according to the Blue Book.

“It’s just not part of the dynamic that exists for a Republican-controlled Legislature to override Gov. Walker,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just not going to happen. Work with him up front, try and get some concessions or changes that make sense for us. That’s where we need to negotiate from.”

Some of Vos’ sharpest comments on transportation were directed at Ross, who repeatedly defended the guv’s budget while testifying before Joint Finance and insisted there is enough money for roads, but priorities need to change.

Vos said those who believe that are delusional, pointing out several commissions called by the guv have said there is a revenue problem and the recent Legislative Audit Bureau report found just 41 percent of state highways were in good condition in 2015.

“If he thinks the only problem is spending, that’s crazy,” Vos said. “The problem is both spending and revenue.”

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