- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - There were halting signs of progress in Wisconsin’s stalled state budget talks on Wednesday, with Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders expressing optimism that a deal could be in the works on road funding following a closed-door meeting.

Republicans control the Legislature but haven’t been able to agree on a new, two-year $76 billion spending plan to replace the current budget that ends Friday. The biggest roadblock has been whether to borrow more or increase taxes and fees to address a $1 billion transportation funding shortfall.

One idea is a new tax on heavy trucks that would raise about $250 million over two years to pay for roads, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said many questions remain and he anticipated opposition by some lawmakers.

The powerful Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce, has already come out against the plan as “anti-business and anti-consumer.”

Walker has promised to veto any gas tax increase to pay for roads, calling instead for $500 million in borrowing. Senate Republicans are calling for $850 million in borrowing, with $350 million financed from the state’s general fund, which would put pressure on money used to pay for K-12 schools, the University of Wisconsin, prisons, Medicaid and all other state expenses.

Fitzgerald said after a meeting with Senate Republicans that “there’s a lot of agreement on just about everything,” except transportation funding.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was coy when asked what items were being discussed to break the budget logjam, saying: “We are closer than we have been” on getting a deal.

Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans were discussing “a whole slew of items that have an effect one way or the other on the entire package.” He said many senators believe “significant reform” is needed at the Department of Transportation, but he didn’t specify what changes they wanted.

Lawmakers have also discussed installing toll roads to raise money, but that would take years to be approved by the federal government. It also wouldn’t help solve the current budget problem.

Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans planned to “start from scratch and run through the entire state budget” next week, but he insisted that doesn’t mean the Senate would pass its own plan rather than try to reach a deal with the Assembly.

Walker’s spokesman, Tom Evenson, said the meeting with Vos and Fitzgerald was a “productive step forward.”

On Tuesday, Vos and Fitzgerald sniped at each other over the lack of progress on a deal and derided each other’s positions on transportation funding as “laughable.”

Republicans are also still discussing whether to raise the maximum income to be allowed to take part in the statewide private school voucher program from 185 percent of poverty to 300 percent, the current requirement for the Milwaukee voucher program.

Democrats, meanwhile, mocked Republicans for not being able to reach a deal on time despite controlling state government. Democratic leaders Rep. Peter Barca and Jennifer Shilling slapped each other on the back and laughed during a stop in the Capitol press room, telling reporters that unlike Republicans they are friends and get along with one another.

“I don’t think they’re even close right now,” Barca said of Republicans on a budget deal. “I think you’re looking at weeks, if not months.”

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.

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

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