After steadfastly refusing to consider a gas tax increase last year, Gov. Scott Walker said Thursday he would be open to the idea to access federal infrastructure funding provided there are corresponding tax savings elsewhere.
Walker told reporters he was being consistent with his position on gas tax increases first voiced in 2014, even though he threatened to veto the budget last year if it had a gas tax hike. Senate Republicans joined with Walker in opposing the gas tax hike, which led to the budget being two months late before a compromise was reached that included additional borrowing and delays in road construction projects.
“I’m willing to look at ways to add to our revenue in the transportation budget as long as we have a net neutral or, ideally, a net reduction for the overall burden of the tax burden in the state,” Walker said. “In the future, my position is the same as the past.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who supported a gas tax increase last year only to be rebuffed by Walker, said he hoped the governor would follow through and consider the idea.
“Wisconsin needs a long-term transportation funding solution,” Vos said in a statement. “Assembly Republicans have long advocated for creative solutions like reducing the income tax while raising transportation revenues. I take the governor at his word that a similar idea will be included in his next budget.”
Walker said in 2014 he would be open to a gas tax increase if there were equal cuts elsewhere, but in September 2016 he threatened to veto any budget with a gas tax increase. Assembly Republicans released a plan in May 2017 that applied the state’s 5 percent sales tax to fuel purchases while also lowering the 32.9-cent-per-gallon gas tax by 4.8 cents per-gallon. But their total plan would have raised taxes $433 million over two years, based on an analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Walker said it was because that plan raised taxes overall that he opposed it.
Walker’s renewed openness to a gas tax increase comes after President Donald Trump on Tuesday called for Congress to spend $1.5 trillion on infrastructure across the country. However, he didn’t promise the federal government actually would provide that much money for roads, bridges, rail and waterways. Instead, his plan relies on state and local governments working with private investors to come up with much of the cash.
Walker said he hoped the federal government would contribute at least 80 percent of the funding with the state share at 20 percent, not the other way around. Walker said he would work with Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, to get a “sizable” infrastructure package for the state.
“Certainly we’re willing to invest to obtain those dollars to grow and build our infrastructure here,” Walker said.
Walker said he hadn’t looked specifically at a gas tax increase in order to access federal dollars, but he’s also not ruling it out like he did last year.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it,” he said of the gas tax increase. “The only way we would consider it is if there’s an actual reduction in the overall tax burden of the state.”
Construction on the Interstate 90/39 expansion from Madison to the state line will be finished one year ahead of schedule, according to a statement released Thursday by Gov. Scott Walker’s office.
The project will wrap up in fall 2021 instead of fall 2022, Steve Theisen, a project spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, told The Gazette.
The DOT will move $32.7 million into the project budget for fiscal year 2018, Thiesen said. That will allow some work to be finished sooner and move the overall project along more quickly, he said.
The extra money comes from savings from lower fuel prices and more competitive bids on road projects, according to Walker’s news release.
The shortened schedule will not apply to Madison’s Beltline Interchange, which is still undergoing environmental analysis, according to the release.
Thiesen said work planned for 2018 will not change. It’s unknown yet what portions of the project will be expedited in 2019.
Motorists on I-90/39 through Janesville and Beloit will see traffic shift to the southbound lanes along a 12-mile stretch of the Interstate this year, Thiesen said.
Currently, traffic uses the southbound lanes only between Racine Street and Highway 14 in Janesville because work is underway on the northbound lanes, he said.
The work zone will be expanded from Janesville to Hart Road north of Beloit later this year, Thiesen said.
Two lanes will remain open on each side of the Interstate during construction, according to a DOT newsletter. Occasional single-lane closures and ramp closures will occur during night hours.
The new construction timeline will not affect the project’s cost, Thiesen said. The change puts the project back on the schedule originally proposed in 2015.
“Opening I-90/39 early ensures that the citizens of Wisconsin will have the infrastructure needed to accommodate job growth and tourism throughout the state,” Walker is quoted as saying in Thursday’s release.
The first two years of the project focused on overpasses and interchanges, Thiesen said. Most of the work now will focus on the road expansion.
Construction to the Highway 26 and Highway 14 interchanges in Janesville is scheduled to run from spring 2019 to fall 2021, Thiesen said.
Ruger Avenue in Janesville will reopen today after construction crews removed the northbound overpass bridge as part of the expansion.
Below-zero wind chills didn’t stop 40 Walworth Middle School students from making something beautiful out of snow Thursday afternoon.
Armed with shovels, picks, metal shavers and horse combs, groups of about five fifth- through eighth-graders pried and chipped away at several large, rectangular blocks of snow at Flat Iron Park in Lake Geneva.
One group sculpted a water bottle because it was a “recycled idea,” a student said. Another group carved a castle, while another made a large chair.
“It’s always interesting to see what turns out in the end,” said Rachel Roemer, a Walworth Elementary School art teacher. “We had some that said they wanted to make a toilet.”
This is the school’s fifth year of participating in the kids’ snow-sculpting event, which is hosted by Lake Geneva’s Winterfest and the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.
The students have two hours to carve their blocks, and some professional sculptors provide tools and mingle with the students while they work, giving them advice and suggestions.
Fifteen adult teams from across the country started sculpting Wednesday and will continue through 11 a.m. Saturday, when judging begins. The public is invited to view the snowy creations all weekend.
“For a lot of these kids, this is really outside of their bubble,” Roemer said Thursday. “It’s a really interesting, cool experience.”
Roemer and art teacher Ted Beauchaine, who run the school’s art club, started planning the sculptures with club members after Christmas break.
The teachers met with the first 40 students who signed up one day after school. They divided them into groups and gave each a small block of clay. The students then brainstormed and sculpted small versions of their designs.
“We tried to steer them away from anything that might be too difficult,” Roemer said. “We warned them that these are big, rectangular blocks, and they’re going to have to work them down.”
The students and teachers rehearsed the best course of action at the beginning of the day Thursday. Then for two hours, the students worked on the snow blocks using their clay versions as guides.
“We said, ‘Make sure you’ve got a plan, who’s doing what, and who’s going to be on what side,’” Roemer said.
Besides learning teamwork, students have to use science and math skills. They also need to adapt to the texture of their snow block and change their designs as necessary.
Joe Tominaro, marketing and development director for Visit Lake Geneva, said the experience broadens students’ horizons.
“A kid that’s never been subjected to a violin might be a great violinist,” Tominaro said. “You bring a kid out and get their hands on some art, and who knows? They could become some really fantastic sculptor.”
Beauchaine agreed, saying the event is about “seeing something start small, with a model of it in clay, and actually building it and seeing it happen. The snow blocks are as tall as some of these kids are.”
The students have unusual access to a competition that produces world-class art right in their backyard, he said.
“It’s a huge, huge event, but it’s so local as well,” Beauchaine said. “That’s a really cool thing for these kids to see.”
Katie Weeks, event manager for Visit Lake Geneva, said snow sculpting also teaches kids how to be active during the bitter cold of winter.
Fontana Elementary School will participate in the sculpting event today, and wind chills are expected to be just as bitter.
In Walworth, some students join the art club just for the sculpting event, Beauchaine said. Roemer said that’s fine with her.
“If this gets them excited about art, great,” she said. “We’ll take it. Anything that gets them enthusiastic about this kind of stuff.”
Aside from sculpting snow, the art club meets every Friday for one hour after school. Roemer and Beauchaine open the art room and let students do anything they aren’t able to do during the school day.
“If they’re really interested in doing something on the pottery wheel, we’ll get them on the pottery wheel,” Beauchaine said. “Or if they want to do a larger-scale mosaic, that’s fine. We’re more facilitators helping kids create what they want to create.”
Local • 3A, 6a
New life at Varsity Lanes
A former bowling alley could become more than a temporary space fix for the Milton School District, which recently extended its lease agreement with the company that owns the former Varsity Lanes Building near Milton High School through March 31. The district has used the space for athletics and academics since last year.
JPD: 13 car thefts in 2 months
The Janesville Police Department said it has identified 13 vehicle thefts in the area over the past two months. In 10 of the cases, keys were left in the vehicles. In six incidents, the vehicles were left running. A vehicle is stolen every 46 seconds in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 40 to 50 percent of the thefts are due to driver error, and only half of the vehicles are recovered.
State • 2A
2nd girl sentenced in stabbing
A Wisconsin girl who stabbed a classmate to curry favor with the fictional horror character Slender Man will be committed to a mental hospital for 40 years, Judge Michael Bohren ordered Thursday. He granted the maximum penalty prosecutors sought and discounted Morgan Geyser’s youth—she was just 12—at the time of the attack in 2014.
Nation/World • 5B-6B
GOP meets to set agenda
Congressional Republicans gathered at a West Virginia resort Thursday in search of a winning election-year agenda, facing the notion that the best they have to offer in 2018 may be a recitation of the tax cuts approved in 2017—and well aware of the looming threat of another government shutdown.
Study: More racism on campus
White supremacist groups have targeted college campuses in surging numbers since President Donald Trump’s election, according to a group that monitors extremism and bigotry. A report issued Thursday said racist fliers, banners and stickers were found on college campuses 147 times in fall 2017, a more than threefold increase over the 41 cases reported one year before.
Sports • 1B-3B
Wisconsin beaten again
The Badgers’ latest Big Ten loss—their seventh in eight games—was the result of an early collapse. UW trailed by 10 points just 3 minutes, 29 seconds into the game and didn’t hit its first field goal until 6:24 into the game. The result: Northwestern parlayed one strong half into an ugly but easy 60-52 victory over UW on Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
President Donald Trump is prepared to approve the release of a controversial Republican-drafted memo about secret government surveillance as soon as today, a step that would put him at odds with his top national security officials but could give him a new tool to undermine public confidence in the Russia investigation.
The White House might not seek any changes to the classified document, a senior administration official said Thursday, even though FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have expressed concern about its contents.
“The president is OK with it,” the official said. “I doubt there will be any redactions. It’s in Congress’ hands after that.”
The FBI publicly warned Wednesday it had “grave concerns” about the memo’s accuracy, a highly unusual challenge to the White House. Coats has privately expressed similar concerns to the White House, saying the release could set a troubling precedent for revealing classified information, according to another U.S. official.
Releasing the memo could put pressure on Wray, who was handpicked by Trump last spring to head the FBI, to respond or even step down. Trump fired Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, and has publicly berated several other senior officials at the bureau and the Justice Department, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In a sign of the growing friction between the FBI and the White House, the union representing rank-and-file FBI agents offered strong support Thursday for Wray, saying he stood “shoulder to shoulder with the men and women of the FBI as we work together to protect our country from criminal and national security threats.”
The classified memo was prepared by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Nunes has separately scrutinized claims of FBI surveillance abuses during the 2016 campaign.
The document apparently cites selective information from FBI interviews with confidential informants; classified material provided to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret and must approve intelligence-related eavesdropping on U.S. citizens; and other highly sensitive material.
The memo reportedly claims \the decision to start surveillance of Carter Page, then a Trump campaign adviser with business interests in Russia, was based in part on information provided by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was working for a U.S. firm collecting opposition research on Trump.
The subsequent counterintelligence collection on Page formed part of the broader criminal investigation, now led by special counsel Robert Mueller, into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the election.
Republicans say the memo proves the FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process to undermine Trump’s campaign and ultimately his presidency. Democrats on the committee say the cherry-picking of information from the FISA application shows Republicans deliberately sought to embarrass the FBI and discredit the Mueller probe.
The Republican majority on the committee agreed Monday to release the memo—but refused to allow the simultaneous release of a lengthy rebuttal document drafted by Democrats, widening the partisan clash.
Conservative commentators and lawmakers have amplified dark speculation that its contents are scandalous. Democrats who have read the document say it skews the facts to present a partisan indictment.
“This memo is part of the slow-motion purge designed to undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president and his allies,” said Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “It’s yet another step on a slide into abuse of power.”
Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian, said the clash differs from previous conflicts between the FBI and presidents, which largely revolved around policy.
“This is about an investigation into (Trump’s) administration and him. It’s not just tension with the FBI. This is about trying to undermine an investigation into the White House,” Zelizer said.
The conflict has divided Republican lawmakers, who were attending a retreat at a resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on Thursday and found themselves facing repeated questions about a classified memo many had not read, instead of their recent success pushing tax cuts through Congress.
Senate Republicans, who have not been allowed to review the House memo, appeared more hesitant than their House colleagues about bucking the FBI to stand by Trump.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said administration officials and members of Congress should heed law enforcement warnings and concerns about the memo.
“They need to pay careful attention to what our folks who protect us have to say about how this bears on our national security,” he said.
House Republicans, on the other hand, were eager to publicize the memo.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he had “zero” concern about the FBI’s objections.
“I’d like to see it out today,” he said.
Lawmakers acknowledge the furor is being fueled in part by an influence campaign, including on social media, that is almost certainly being stirred up by Russian-aligned players, including Twitter bots.
“The Russians aren’t causing that, but I have no doubt they’re engaging and trying to elevate it,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They’re the kid on the playground shouting, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gave Nunes wide latitude to work on the memo, backing him in a dispute last month when Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein objected to his requests for some highly classified material that the FBI normally doesn’t share.
On Thursday, Ryan tried to tamp down expectations for the memo. He said it “is not an indictment” of American institutions, the U.S. justice system, the FBI or the Department of Justice.
“It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general,” Ryan told reporters, referring to Rosenstein.
The memo “is Congress doing its job and conducting legitimate oversight” of the FISA law, he said. “If mistakes were made and individuals did something wrong, it’s our job as the legislative branch to conduct oversight over the executive branch if abuses were made.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Nunes should be stripped of his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
Pelosi said in a statement that Nunes had “abused his position to launch a highly unethical and dangerous cover-up campaign for the White House.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to forestall the memo’s release. He accused Nunes of sending a copy to the White House that had been “secretly altered” with “material changes.”
Schiff said the process for releasing the classified memo needed to be restarted because the text had changed.
A spokesman for Nunes, Jack Langer, defended the changes as “minor edits” and described Schiff’s letter as part of an “increasingly strange attempt” to keep the memo under wraps.