Civic leaders spread Rock County message at Capitol
MADISON — State lawmakers representing Rock County were united in their support Wednesday for the expansion of Interstate 90/39 between Madison and the Illinois state line.
Two, however, reiterated their concerns about the project staying on schedule while the state Department of Transportation deals with a deficit in the account it uses to pay for major road construction initiatives.
"The I-39/90 project is crucial to all of us, and I have no doubt that it's going to get done," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. "The central question is whether the 2015-17 budget keeps it on track."
Cullen made his comments to a group of about 60 people at the annual Rock County Day in Madison.
The expansion project is expected to cost about $835 million by the time its finished in 2019. The majority of the heavy construction, and therefore spending, will be done after 2015.
Since Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his 2013-15 budget last month, Cullen and other Democrats have questioned the transportation department's deficit and been critical of Walker's short-term plan to patch the deficit with borrowing and general-purpose revenue intended for other state operations.
The state's transportation fund is segregated and therefore has its own funding source, namely gas taxes and vehicle registration fees. For a variety of reasons, those revenues have diminished to create the deficit that Cullen worries could delay the I-90/39 project.
"We've got some real problems in transportation, and we're going down the path of ducking it," he said.
Rep. Debra Kolste, a Janesville Democrat sworn into office in January, said the I-90/39 project is important to Rock County and the entire state. She, too, is concerned with new bonding for transportation projects and general-purpose money going directly to transportation.
Kolste said a special transportation committee recently recommended gas tax increases and new vehicle registration fees as a way to increase revenues for the transportation fund, but Walker ignored them in his budget proposal.
"I think we'll all work hard trying to make sure I-39/90 goes through but realize there is give and take, and it's important to us to get that accomplished, but there are other things that need to be talked about," she said.
As it's been at every Rock County Day in Madison, the Interstate expansion project topped a list of priorities that teams delivered to Senate and Assembly offices Wednesday.
Others on the "Roadmap to Rock County's Future" also were back this year:
-- Support for legislation that would allow the transfer of state income tax credits for businesses that have no income and therefore no use for the economic development incentives.
-- Reform of tax increment finance law to reduce the base value of individual districts that have property within them demolished.
-- Support for solutions to the state's skills gap problem and creation of a state fund to address immediate workforce training needs.
Loudenbeck chairs the Assembly's Workforce Development Committee, which includes Kolste and Rep. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville.
She said her committee continues to work on flexible programs that train unemployed, under-employed and incumbent workers.
The state Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill that cleared Loudenbeck's committee and easily won Assembly approval last week. It increases funding for workforce training and pays for the creation of a new database to better match job seekers with openings.
"People are still struggling, and we've got work to do," she said.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, said he would like to see a greater emphasis on skilled trades in high school.
"This is a real avenue for our young adults," he said. "One of the common cries we hear from industries is they have openings and can't find skilled personnel. They have to go out of the state—sometimes out of the country—to bring people.
"That should not be happening."
Ringhand told the group she's pleased with the progress the county has made since General Motors closed its Janesville plant four years ago.
"People really dug their heels in and decided the only way to get out of this rut is to do it ourselves," said Ringhand.