- Associated Press - Thursday, July 13, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Road builders could pay their workers less and state transportation officials would face more scrutiny under a bill that a group of Republican legislators began circulating for sponsorship Thursday.

The measure comes in response to a critical state audit of the Department of Transportation in January. The review found that the agency had been underestimating the cost of highway projects by millions of dollars and that Wisconsin’s roads are in worse shape than roads in six other Midwestern states.

“We’re inserting ourselves legislatively into a broken agency,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We are not going to just sit back anymore and allow DOT to be mismanaged.”

Republicans are grappling with how to close a $1 billion shortfall in the state’s transportation fund. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed borrowing $500 million and delaying projects. Senate Republicans have proposed borrowing $850 million. Assembly Republicans want to raise more revenue, but Walker has vowed to veto any increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees.

The stalemate has brought work on the 2017-19 state budget to a standstill. The new bill doesn’t offer any solutions to the standoff. Instead, it would eliminate the state’s prevailing wage laws, which set minimum wages for workers on public construction projects. Republicans have been working for years to eliminate them.

The DOT would be allowed to use a number of different methods for completing projects, including allowing a single contractor to complete all phases of a project and prohibiting a contractor from performing work that exceeds the price set by the government unit that awarded the bid. Kapenga said the new methods would give contractors more freedom to complete jobs as they see fit and reduce DOT micromanagement.

The state Department of Administration would have to solicit bids for an outside audit of the DOT. The review would have to be finished by Aug. 31 of next year. A new inspector general within the DOT would investigate fraud, inefficiency and mismanagement at the agency. The inspector general would have to work to find savings that would pay the costs of the investigation.

The bill also would limit the amount of in-house engineering work that DOT staff could perform to 20 percent.

The proposal would require counties and municipalities to approve wheel taxes through referendums. No one could build a roundabout without approval from local government.

The DOT would have to transfer state dollars set aside for state highway repairs to a new account for local transportation assistance programs and shift federal local assistance money toward state highway repairs. Kapenga said the goal is to apply federal money to fewer projects to avoid federal restrictions.

DOT spokeswoman Patricia Mayers said in an email to The Associated Press that agency Secretary Dave Ross has already directed staff to review and reprioritize all projects and find efficiencies. She said he welcomes all ideas to make the agency more efficient and accountable.

Ross replaced Mark Gottlieb as secretary in January. Gottlieb resigned about three weeks before state auditors released the review that found project costs were underestimated.

Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald looks forward to taking a closer look at the bill’s details. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a news release that he supports many of the reforms but didn’t say which ones. His spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, didn’t immediately reply to a email inquiring about specifics.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t immediately reply to an email.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, said the bill would result in lower worker wages and out-of-state companies taking Wisconsin contracts.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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