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Republican suggests income tax cut could offset gas tax hike

MADISON

Republicans would be open to raising the gas tax to pay for roads if other taxes are cut by an equal amount, a GOP co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee said Tuesday.

The signal for a potential compromise on road funding from Republican Rep. John Nygren comes before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has even submitted his two-year budget proposal to the Legislature. Evers has said he is open to raising gas taxes to pay for roads but has not put forward a specific proposal.

Transportation funding is expected to be one of the biggest budget fights, just as it was under former Gov. Scott Walker. His refusal to consider gas tax increases without corresponding cuts elsewhere delayed passage of the last state budget for three months. The budget ultimately approved relied on more borrowing to pay for roads with no increase to the gas tax or other fees.

But Nygren, speaking to reporters after a WisPolitics.com luncheon, said if Evers were willing to abide by Walker’s terms to offset any gas tax increase with an equal tax cut, they might be able to reach a deal.

“It could be an offset to meet that previous pledge that Gov. Walker had made, then the Republicans, I believe, would be supportive,” Nygren said.

Nygren later tried to walk back his comments, saying Assembly Republicans have not met on the issue or taken a position and that he was trying to describe where GOP lawmakers’ past position.

Still, Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said it was “good to hear that Rep. Nygren is open to finding common ground with the governor, because people want to see collaboration.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately respond.

Republicans and Evers have both proposed cutting middle class income taxes by about $340 million, but they disagree on how to pay for it. Evers wants to cap a manufacturing and agriculture tax credit program, a move Republicans oppose. Instead, Republicans want Evers to tap a budget surplus, something he has rejected.

Nygren said if taxes aren’t increased elsewhere, Evers’ $340 million income tax cut could provide room for Republicans to support a tax increase for roads. A 10-cent per-gallon gas tax increase would bring in about $340 million.

The current gas tax of 32.9 cents per gallon has not gone up since 2006. It is the 19th highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation.

It’s “too early to say” whether Republicans would support a gas tax increase, registration fee hike or instituting tolling to pay for roads, Nygren said. All three of those ideas have had support among some Republican lawmakers in the past.

Evers campaigned saying that “all options” were on the table to pay for roads, including raising the gas tax and then indexing it to inflation so it would automatically increase in future years without legislative approval.

Nygren’s comments came after Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau spoke at the luncheon about the governor’s upcoming budget that he is to deliver in late February. Gau reiterated that the budget will focus on the issues he campaigned on, including increasing funding for public schools to cover two-thirds of their costs, something Republicans support, and expanding Medicaid, a move Republicans oppose.

She also said Evers’ budget might propose closing the “dark stores” loophole that lets companies assess property taxes using the value of an empty store instead of an operational store. This typically gives stores lower assessments, which means businesses save money at the expense of local governments.

Municipalities have been lobbying to close the loophole, a move Evers supports. The Legislature considered a bill last session that would have prohibited assessors from comparing active stores’ property values to dark stores, but the measure never got a vote.


Angela Major 

Mail carrier Crystal Thiele sorts through mail as she walks from house to house Tuesday afternoon on Vista Avenue in Janesville. She says there's no trick to delivering mail in extreme temperatures, but she wears a heated head wrap and pair of socks.


Anthony Wahl 

A frigid wind blows snow across an empty cornfield along South Kessler Road west of Janesville at sunset Tuesday.


Local
It's 20 below zero? Go out and play in Fairbanks, Alaska

JANESVILLE

In Janesville, schools closed their doors after winter roared into town with a blanket of snow and below-zero wind chills.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, the temperature that keeps kids inside for recess is 20 degrees below zero.

School is never called off because of cold.

As southern Wisconsin prepares for a period of record-breaking cold, The Gazette contacted the cold weather experts—namely, anyone who has lived through a Fairbanks winter—for advice and encouragement. Fairbanks is 196 driving miles from the Arctic Circle, so these people know cold.

We started with the North Pole Public Library, which, alas, is not actually at the North Pole but in a community southeast of Fairbanks.

Here’s the first thing you need to know: The library has installed head-bolt heaters in its parking lot so patrons can plug in their cars before perusing the shelves.

We did not make that up.

North Pole librarian Pam Weaver kindly offered to survey her co-workers. She called us back with a few tips.

  • If you don’t have a heated garage or the ability to plug in your car, you might want to start your car every few hours. The oil, transmission fluid and other stuff that makes your car go gets gunky in this weather.
  • Put a blanket over your car hood. Many people swear by this technique, she said.

Before the advent of plug-ins, some old-timers used to heat up coal in a skillet and place it under their cars’ oil pans. Weaver does not recommend this.

“There’s also something with a weed burner, but let’s not even go there,” she said.

No, let’s not. A weed burner, by the way, is a small, propane-fueled device used for controlled burns.

  • Dogs should be outfitted with booties and winter coats if they’re going outside. Wisconsin-born Fluffy is no match for White Fang weather.
  • Cover your ears and nose.

“There’s not very much blood circulation to your ears and nose, and they’re usually the first thing to get frostbite,” Weaver said.

Just like home

Joe Ortis, a visitor information specialist at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Information Center in Fairbanks, said keeping your hands and feet warm is crucial.

“If those get cold, it’s really a challenge,” Ortis said.

But Ortis was quick to point out some advantages of living in—or at least visiting—Fairbanks.

“We have the best viewing of the aurora borealis,” he said. “And we have hot springs near here.”

Visitors can rent a yurt with a glass roof and watch the sky in comfort. Other activities include ice fishing, snowmobiling and cross country skiing, which would make us feel right at home.

Just how bad is the cold?

The other day when it was minus 44 degrees, one of Ortis’ co-workers threw a pot full of boiling water into the air. It froze before it hit the ground.

“It just vaporized,” Ortis said.

Later he noted, “You wouldn’t think you could tell the difference between minus 20 and minus 40, but you really can.”

News you can use

We also placed a call to Rod Boyce, editor of the Fairbanks News-Miner. He wasn’t in, so we talked to reporter Dorothy Chomicz instead.

Chomicz said newspaper staffers sometimes sit around and chuckle at the cold weather news from the lower 48.

“We’ve got dog mushers racing through the snow in the wilderness at 45 degrees below zero, and their eyeballs aren’t freezing,” Chomicz said.

But she agreed that 32 degrees below zero would be “uncomfortable if you’re not used to it.”

Chomicz was born and raised in Alaska. She has made several attempts to live someplace warmer, but she always returns.

“We like to say that the cold keeps the riffraff out,” she said.

Her advice?

Wear layers. Get good gloves and boots. Buy hand-warmers. Always make sure you’re well-stocked with cold weather gear.

“Always keep a full tank of gas,” she said. “If you get stuck in a ditch, you never know when you might get rescued.”

In Fairbanks, it is so cold for such a long time that they spread gravel instead of salt on the roads. The gravel gives vehicles’ tires some purchase.

“It’s not great for your windshields,” Chomicz admitted.

When it’s bitterly cold for a long period, car tires can look like they’re flat.

“When you’re first driving, the car is going ‘ka-clunk, ka-clunk,’” Chomicz said. “Then the air in the tires warms up.”

Her co-workers who have children in school let us know that the lowest temperature for outside recess is minus 20 degrees.

To confirm that, we called Sharice Walker, public relations director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

Walker, who once lived in Waukesha, insisted that Alaska’s cold is different from Wisconsin’s. It doesn’t have the biting wind that makes your face hurt and your body long for Arizona.

“We like to joke about it,” Walker said. “We like to say it’s a dry cold.”

So put on your snow pants and go play on the swings. The weather’s fine—if you’re from Fairbanks.


Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 30, 2019

Gene L. Curler

Lyle L. Fell

James A. Haeni

Mary L. Hathorn

Patricia Marie Henry

Harold L. Lemke

Leo Edward Noel

Mary P. Runaas

Karen E. Sova

James E. Thibeau


Government
Neighbors open-minded to possible housing development on former baseball fields

JANESVILLE

Residents from the area surrounding a potential multifamily residential development showed no clear opposition to the project during a neighborhood meeting Tuesday.

About 30 people braved bone-chilling weather to attend the meeting at Sneakers Sports Bar and Grill, where the guest list was limited to residents near the vacant baseball fields on Woodman Road just west of the intersection of Mount Zion and Milton avenues. Those in attendance displayed no obvious NIMBYism that can sometimes plague such proposals.

The plan, still in its preliminary stage, would transform the vacant ball diamonds into six buildings and 119 units of two-story townhomes on 9.9 acres. It’s a relatively low-density project and would fit the neighborhood of single-family homes, said Scott Kwiecinski of Horizon Development Group.

He estimated it would cost about $17 million. He plans on submitting a tax increment financing request to the city.

The market-rate apartments would have one-, two- and three-bedroom units ranging from about $850 to more than $1,200 in monthly rent. It would include ample parking through surface spots and multiple garages, he said.

Tenants would have to pass a variety of background checks and minimum income levels to ensure residents would be financially reliable, Kwiecinski said.

The neighborhood meeting was a good-faith effort to inform residents before the project reaches public hearing stages at the plan commission and city council, he said. Those in attendance seemed to appreciate that, even if it was hard to hear at times over the din of a sports bar.

Resident Tony Bastien sipped a beer after the meeting and called the gathering “informative,” even if he leans against the project. It had a decent living plan, but he worried it could fall into disrepair after construction if mismanaged, he said.

He would rather the space get turned into a park or picnic area. Whatever the developers decide to do, Bastien hoped they would consider the neighbors, he said.

Mary Bancroft worried a little about more traffic in the area. But she thought a rendering of a similar project done elsewhere looked nice, and she said she remained open-minded to the idea.

Mayfair Road might eventually be extended through the property to improve traffic flow, Kwiecinski said.

Putting 119 units on largely unused land would help ease the city’s ongoing housing shortage. Kwiecinski last year attended the city housing summit that stressed the need for more residential projects.

Without more places to live, Janesville would deal with an “economic development and workforce retention issue,” he said.

The development team will review feedback from Tuesday’s meeting and decide whether they want to alter their plans. Public input was “constructive” and “neighborhood-oriented” and showed residents have a lot of pride in their community, Kwiecinski said.

He expects to submit a rezoning request later this spring to change the land from conservancy to residential.

If the plan stays on schedule and earns approval, construction on the first building could begin in late summer of this year. The first units would become available in 2020, he said.

The rest of the buildings would be constructed in stages.