State Senate President Mike Ellis says his top priority this spring is creating a regional transit authority with taxing powers in the Fox Valley, just 21/2 years after he and his fellow Republicans abolished similar agencies around the state.
The Neenah Republican has teamed up with a political rival on the effort -- his co-sponsor is Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton), who is running against Ellis in November. No other lawmaker has signed onto the bill, but it has the backing of local leaders and organizations across the Fox Cities.
The lawmakers called the plan to form a Fox Valley transit authority a potential model for the rest of the state, saying it would balance the need to fund buses with the ability of the public to weigh in on whether to raise the sales tax in their area.
Backers see passing the bill as critical because the Fox Valley is slated to lose about $2 million in annual federal funding at the end of 2015. Having a healthy bus system will ensure people can get to work, they contend.
"Mobility is an essential ingredient to get people to be self-sufficient," Ellis said. "If we get them to work, they can be productive members of society. ... Anyone who cries about people being on the public dole should run as fast as they can to sign on to this bill."
Bernard Schaber said the bill was carefully fashioned to include local referendums before raising sales taxes to alleviate the concerns of opponents of transit authorities.
"It was put together very specifically to address all the concerns my Republican friends raised," Bernard Schaber said.
The bill has a tough road in the Legislature, where both houses are controlled by Republicans who in 2011 killed fledgling regional transit authorities in southeastern Wisconsin, Dane County, the Chippewa Valley and Chequamegon Bay.
Most of those RTAs had been created two years earlier, in 2009, when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Ending them was included as a provision in the 2011 state budget; Ellis voted for that budget and Bernard Schaber voted against it.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said Senate Republicans would wait to see if Ellis could come up with the votes to get his bill passed.
Ellis and other Republicans who support creating the RTA have the opportunity to tap into broad Democratic backing for it.
"There is strong support (among Senate Democrats) to have RTAs all across Wisconsin, as there was before they were outlawed by Republicans, including Ellis, in 2011's budget," said Justin Sargent, chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee).
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a vocal opponent of RTAs, said he would need to be convinced before supporting the plan. Vos said he was worried that after an RTA was created, Democrats could take control of state government and remove the provisions that require referendums before raising the sales tax.
"I'm still a pretty big skeptic," Vos said.
Despite those obstacles, Ellis said he was undeterred.
"I am working diligently behind the scenes to get this bill through the state Senate," he said.
Bernard Schaber said the best chance to get the measure put into law is to pass it through the Senate first and then use that momentum to put pressure on the Assembly. She gave the proposal a 50-50 chance of passing.
The measure has won the support of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Outagamie County Board, as well as local employer ThedaCare.
The local backing prompted Ellis and Bernard Schaber to team up on the bill -- as they have in past legislative sessions -- even though they will appear opposite one another on the November ballot. The two testified together last month at a public hearing on the bill before the Senate Transportation Committee.
"It actually shows people of different parties can have common goals and we actually can work together in a respectful fashion," Bernard Schaber said.
Action on the bill would need to happen quickly because lawmakers will complete their work for the year by April.