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News analysis | On top in Iowa, Walker says he’ll borrow rather than raise taxes to build highways

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Gov. Scott Walker wants to borrow money that won’t have to be repaid long into the future rather than increase gasoline taxes to fund questionable transportation projects over the next two years.

The governor’s decision comes as a new Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll finds the self-described tea party founder leading among Republicans in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation nominating caucuses early next year.

Released last night, the poll found Walker was the first choice of 15 percent of respondents, up from 4 percent in October. That puts the Wisconsin governor slightly ahead of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who polled at 14 percent. Mitt Romney, who has since withdrawn from the race under pressure from the Republican establishment, was third at 13 percent.

Ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who supports biblical rule of law, was in fourth place, with 10 percent of voters’ support.

Kick the can

Walker’s new transportation borrowing plan calls for $1.3 billion to be raised through issuing bonds. The governor wants to offset that borrowing by delaying the construction of buildings, including projects in the University of Wisconsin system.

Walker’s borrowing plan would allow him to illustrate his opposition to tax increases as he runs for president at a time he faces a budget gap of at least $2 billions. But his borrowing plan to fund highways might not go over well with his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.

“The can keeps getting kicked down the road,” complained GOP state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who has overwhelmingly supported Walker’s policies in the past.

Darling, who co-chairs the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said she wants to see Walker’s overall plan before deciding how much borrowing she could support. She also said she wants to see a sustainable system for funding roads.

Unneeded highways

Many — if not most — of the highway construction projects that have been approved are unnecessary, according to traffic studies. The number of miles driven on most highways earmarked for massive expansion projects has either flattened out or decreased.

Meanwhile, the unnecessary projects cause countless accidents and traffic delays that cost millions in lost productivity, according to experts.

But roadbuilders are among the most generous contributors to political campaigns, and they generally get the projects they want — needed or not. Good government leaders such as Steve Hiniker of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin call the highway planning process a legal form of corruption. He and others say that highway construction companies virtually represent an unofficial arm of state government.

On Tuesday, Walker plans to formally introduce his proposal to borrow money from the future to construct his backers’ multibillion-dollar road projects. Lawmakers will spend the next few months reshaping his plan.

Two years ago, Walker and GOP lawmakers approved $2 billion in borrowing. About half was for buildings and maintenance and about half was for highways.

In November, Walker’s transportation secretary Mark Gottlieb recommended increasing gas taxes and vehicle fees by $751 million over two years to give to roadbuilders. Walker’s office rejected those proposals after the public and his fellow Republicans complained.

Walker’s critics say he nixed the taxes for political reasons. 

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