Walker backs Interstate expansion; touts state's business opportunities
As governor, he still does.
“Absolutely it’s a priority, not only for Rock County but for the rest of the state,” Walker said Tuesday after a meeting with the leadership of Rock County 5.0, a five-year public/private economic development initiative designed to reposition and revitalize the county’s economy.
In October, the state Transportation Projects Commission approved four statewide projects, including the $1 billion plan to expand a 45-mile stretch of Interstate from four lanes to six between the state line and the Beltline in Madison.
At the time, Democrats controlled the state Senate, Assembly and governor’s office.
Now, it’s Walker and the Republicans in control, and the trick will be finding the money for the project. Half of the cost is expected to come from state borrowing. The remainder would be split between the state’s transportation fund and the federal government.
“The kicker for us is that we’re still working on the budget, and the question is how we get that plugged in,” Walker said. “They left us a pretty tremendous hole in the transportation budget.
“In terms of priorities, we’re trying to get going on that and some of the other TPC-identified projects.”
The hole Walker referred to is a transportation department budget recommendation for more than $300 million in cuts over the two-year period. That’s on top of the department’s current budget, which is heading to a June expiration with a shortfall of nearly $91 million.
Declining revenue from the state’s gas tax and a significant drop in vehicle registrations are fueling the deficit and projected cuts.
Fresh off a week of promoting Wisconsin as an alternative to Illinois, Walker started Tuesday with the 5.0 group, which has raised more $1.2 million since its formation in late 2009.
From there, the governor went to an Interstate rest stop near Beloit to unveil a “Wisconsin: Open for Business” road sign, a media opportunity he repeated later in the day at border crossings in Dickeyville, Hudson and Superior.
While Walker was traveling the state’s southern, western and northern perimeters Tuesday, the Legislature’s budget committee passed key pieces of his tax-cutting agenda.
The committee approved one bill that would eliminate the state tax on Health Savings Accounts. It also approved eliminating corporate and franchise taxes for companies that relocate to Wisconsin.
In Beloit, his meeting with Rock County 5.0 leaders at ABC Supply was a case of preaching to the choir: Walker to the group and the group to Walker.
The governor, whose father was a minister, acknowledged as much.
“My dad was often asked why he preached to the choir, and he said it was because he wanted the choir to sing,” Walker said. “I, too, want more singing in the choir.”
Groups such as Rock County 5.0, he said, are the best economic development tools in Wisconsin.
Walker said he can put up all the border signs he wants, but they won’t make a difference unless the state’s business culture becomes more welcoming.
That culture includes a number of regulatory, tax and cost issues that too often have kept businesses from expanding in or moving to Wisconsin, he said.
“The bottom line is how much does it cost to do business here,” he said. “We’re doing the marketing today, but beyond that we’ve got to be able to deliver.”
Rock County 5.0 co-chairwoman Mary Willmer-Sheedy told Walker’s his pro-business agenda mirrors that of her group.
“You’ve made our job a whole lot easier,” she said. “After the auto industry left Rock County, we went through a difficult time. We decided that we could either wait for help to arrive or we could take control.
“We’ve done that and united into one voice for Rock County.”
While it had the governor’s ear, the group pushed for the Interstate expansion, asked for changes in how state tax credits can be used as economic development tools and reiterated its support for Walker’s plan to replace the Department of Commerce with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., a tightly-focused agency that promotes rather than regulates business activity.
The group indicated that it would continue to work with the state to either lure General Motors back to its vacant Janesville plant or find alternative uses it for it.
The group also advocated changes in tax incremental financing law and an extension of the state’s designation of Beloit as a Development Opportunity Zone. Beloit was certified as such in 2001, and City Manager Larry Arft said the designation led to $160 million in private investment and 800 jobs in the city’s Gateway Business Park.