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‘A really mean-spirited cut’: Madison mayor hopes for help after state budget cuts transit money

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As Gov. Tony Evers closes in on his decision on how to handle the budget sent to his desk by the state legislature, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said Wednesday she hoped the governor's office had plans to restore funding for the Madison Metro bus service.

Republican leaders driving the legislative budget process included a 50 percent cut to state funding for transit services in Madison and Milwaukee.

Rhodes-Conway said she cannot help but think it was political payback; the state's two biggest cities are also its most secure Democratic strongholds.

"To single out only two of them, you really have to wonder what's motivating that," Rhodes-Conway said. "It's really disappointing, again, to see the legislature playing politics with the state budget and, frankly, with peoples' lives."

The mayor added she hoped Evers would either use his line item powers to veto the transit cuts or, if he cannot, to use some of the state's $2.5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act relief to plug the funding gaps created by state cuts.

"I don't know if this provision is something he can veto or not but the state did receive ARPA money themselves," Rhodes-Conway said. "So I think there's a number of ways that the governor could make us whole."

Following a mixed bag of state supreme court rulings last year, it's not clear what exactly Evers is now allowed to do with his ability to remove individual parts of the budget. One decision upheld Evers's ability to strike out a fee decrease, which has led some budget observers to think he could erase tax cuts or funding reductions depending on how that budget language was written.

Republicans in charge of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee defend their decision to slash funding to the two biggest cities' transit lines; they've maintained that the transit authorities still come out ahead since federal relief earmarked for that service outweighs the state cuts.

"Talked about transit, there's a ton of federal money there," said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) on a recent appearance on Capital City Sunday.

Within Madison's $62.2 million budget for Metro, about $34 million comes from various government sources; about $16 million of that was supposed to come from the state so the budget cut amounts to about an $8 million hole.

Under the American Rescue Plan Act's transit funding, Madison is set to get $30 million. Rhodes-Conway argued the $22 million difference is an "apples and oranges" comparison that does not make up for a potential loss in state support.

"The state transit aids are something that we rely on every year in our base budget," Rhodes-Conway said. "The ARPA funding coming from the federal government is a one-time amount."

Rhodes-Conway said Metro had already lost a serious amount of its expected revenue last year when it stopped charging people to ride during the peak of the pandemic; Metro began collecting fares again last September.

Her biggest source of frustration, though, was lawmakers' decision to single out Madison and Milwaukee. While those cities were, by far, the biggest beneficiaries of federal transit aid, several other Wisconsin cities, including Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha, La Crosse, Wausau, Eau Claire, and Janesville all received between $1-4 million in ARPA funds without having their state funding reduced.

"It just doesn't make any sense," Rhodes-Conway said. "It doesn't make any sense in terms of population, it doesn't make any sense in terms of economic impact and you have to speculate that it's just politically motivated."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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