- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democrats provided majority Republicans the votes they needed Wednesday to approve $350 million in borrowing for major road construction projects across Wisconsin, avoiding delays that could affect some of the most heavily traveled parts of the state.

In a rare bipartisan vote, four Democrats joined with six Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. All six Senate Republicans voted against it.

But despite Democrats’ vote, they said Republicans who control the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker need to come up with a long-term solution to funding transportation.

“The majority party, but more so Gov. Walker doesn’t have the guts to do the right thing,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton. “And the right thing is to raise revenue.”

In 2013, a bipartisan transportation commission recommended increasing the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, raising other transportation fees and using a mileage-based vehicle registration system. Walker refused to raising the tax without an equal cut in taxes elsewhere, leading to the reliance on borrowing.

That refusal, despite his own transportation secretary calling for a higher gas tax, was because of his presidential aspirations, Erpenbach said.

“The man has to lead. He can’t just borrow and then leave town,” Erpenbach said. “We need to do something other than what we’re doing today.”

Democrats suggested that Wisconsin should follow the lead of neighboring Michigan, where the Republican-controlled Legislature this week approved a 7.3-cent gas tax increase and a 20 percent hike in vehicle registration fees to pay for improving deteriorating roads and bridges.

GOP senators who voted against the borrowing agreed with Democrats’ concerns, said Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the committee. She pledged to work with Democrats to create a sustainable transportation budget.

“It’s time to look at this unsustainable transportation budget,” Darling said. “It’s time to say we can’t go on spending and spending and spending. … We think the trend lines are unsustainable.”

Walker, in his state budget introduced earlier this year, proposed borrowing $1.3 billion over two years for transportation projects, but Republicans said that was too much. Instead, they agreed to borrow $500 million initially and then make $350 million more available to be released later.

Walker pushed for approval of at least $200 million in borrowing this year to keep the road projects on track, while another $150 million could be tapped next year. The budget committee, in order to avoid having to come back and vote next year, approved the full $350 million at once.

The money will go toward five major projects that faced two-year delays without approval of the borrowing. They are: the expansion and reconstruction of Highway 10/441 in the Fox Valley; Interstate 39-90 lane expansion from the Illinois state line to Madison; expanding and reconstructing the Highway 151/Verona Road interchange in Madison; reconstructing 11 miles of Highway 15 near New London in Outagamie County; and completing work on Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan.

Other smaller projects across the state that also faced delays will benefit from the funding.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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