A Senate committee Thursday sent Gov. Scott Walker’s appointments to head the Department of Transportation and the Department of Veterans Affairs to the full Senate for confirmation.
DOT Secretary Dave Ross pushed back during the hearing against an effort to bring in additional transportation dollars, saying the state has “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
The Senate Committee on Transportation and Veterans Affairs approved his appointment 3-2, with Dem Sens. Dave Hansen and Tim Carpenter voting against. The appointment now goes to the full Senate.
The two Dems repeatedly pressed Ross on whether the state needs more money to fix its roads, with Carpenter saying Gov. Scott Walker is focusing on a re-election campaign “instead of taking care of our crisis in the transportation system.”
“I know you’re a great guy, but I think we’re in over our heads,” the Milwaukee Dem said.
But Ross said Walker’s budget proposal provides the “right balance” of spending and revenues. He also said DOT had too many highway construction projects in the pipeline “way too soon,” adding the feds have warned him on that point.
“We decided to remodel our kitchen and bathroom and our rec room at the same time,” he said.
Another element that played a part, he said, was DOT underestimating cost estimates for major highway projects over more than a decade, partly because it didn’t account for inflation on many of them. A Legislative Audit Bureau review in January found the state underestimated the costs for those projects by $3.8 billion.
Ross told lawmakers he’s “grateful for this audit” flagging areas of potential savings and that the agency will now report on future highway costs at a construction-related inflation rate that reflects highway inflation better than the CPI.
“Ultimately, if we are to be taken seriously, our estimates must be better,” he said.
DOT has already stopped a study looking at a possible expansion of the 39/90/94 corridor from Madison to Wisconsin Dells. It also put on hold the Madison Beltline Interchange portion of I-39/90; the project’s costs have jumped to $1.75 billion, with the Beltline portion accounting for $550 million of that. Ross yesterday wrote in a letter to Assembly GOP leaders, who had requested an update from the agency on project costs, that the Beltline portion price tag is “completely unacceptable.”
“Reevaluation of this project has already begun,” he wrote. “We can and will do better.”
As for other projects that could be cut, DOT spokeswoman Patty Mayers said “the process of reevaluation and reprioritization is underway and nothing has yet been decided.”
See the letter from Ross:
Daniel Zimmerman, whose appointment as Veterans Affairs secretary was approved unanimously, told the committee he set “a new tone” at the department on his first day.
The agency has come under fire for reports on substandard care at its King Veterans Home, which is currently undergoing a state audit. But Zimmerman said he met with staff members there right away and noted he has “a particular affinity for King.”
His wife’s parents both worked there when she was young and King was “her playground and the members were sort of her grandparents,” he said, adding that his grandparents “dreamed of going to King and retiring.”
“It’s truly an honor to be able to safeguard what we have at King,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said he went to a conference in D.C. to meet with other veterans agency heads, which confirmed what he “already knew — that Wisconsin is truly a national leader.” The state veteran’s museum, he noted, is a Smithsonian affiliate and while veterans cemeteries across the country are no longer accepting new people, Wisconsin’s is “actually now taking people from other states.”
He said the agency is taking a look at how to address staffing and overtime levels but didn’t yet have an answer on how it’ll do so. He also said the state should “absolutely” have veteran service officers in all 72 counties, saying he’s “incredibly impressed” with the services they provide.
He called Walker’s proposal for the agency “solid,” noting it adds more direct care staff at the King home and it funds a study on the needs of women veterans. The agency is going through the proposal and see if there are “other things that we want to do or modify,” he said.
Veterans groups threw their support behind Zimmerman’s appointment, with VFW Wisconsin State Commander Mike Eggleston saying “his communication has been fantastic.”
The committee also unanimously approved Yash Wadhwa’s appointment as railroads commissioner for a term that ends in 2023. Walker first appointed him in January 2016 to replace former Commissioner Jeff Plale.