March 12, 2008

Reports of KRM's death premature?

You know those disaster movies, the ones with debris and bodies everywhere... when suddenly someone yells, "Medic, over here! This one's alive!!"

Well, that's what happened today in Madison. They found a pulse, albeit faint, in KRM.

All those headlines, KRM commuter rail funding dead for the year (it's on our front page even as I type this) may turn out to have been premature. But the operative word is may.

State Senate Democrats today passed an economic development package (SB 510, Wisconsin Invests Now) that (among other things) would authorize the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority to issue bonds and raise revenue for the proposed KRM commuter rail line. The bill passed on a party-line vote, 18-15. The funding mechanism? A fee added to car rentals. (Is it just me, or does that seem anticlimactic?)

Sen. John Lehman, D-21st District, said, "The state Senate has once again recognized the importance of the KRM project to the economy of southeast Wisconsin. With the Racine area struggling with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, it's time to take real, concrete action to create jobs. The KRM rail line is one of those steps.

"As passed by the Senate, the KRM provision also provides for the local governments represented by the RTA to hold referenda on funding the program through an increase in the car rental fee. While those who have never supported the project have in recent days rushed to write KRM's obituary, I and the many other supporters of this important project in the business community, local government and community at large will continue to work to see it become a reality," Lehman said.

The Democrats' bill does not require a funding source referendum, as did the much-reviled proposal -- that never actually got past the talking stage, near as we can tell -- by Rep. Robin Vos, R-63rd Assembly District, that would have allowed use of a sales tax only if specifically approved by local voters community-by-community. Vos' bill couldn't garner a single co-sponsor.

But does the Democrats' bill have a favorable prognosis, doctor? Hard to tell. There's little expectation that the Assembly will take up, much less approve SB 510. But according to Mike Browne, a Lehman staffer, "it's another statement from Senate Democrats that this is important, and they're trying to find a way to get it done. It keeps some momentum."

Browne notes that the special session Gov. Jim Doyle has called for the Legislature to deal with the budget shortfall begins tomorrow, and Doyle also has talked about calling yet another session to consider the Great Lakes Compact. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Democrats' economic development package might find its way onto the floor.

SB 510, by the way, is not really a KRM bill; mostly it attempts to close the "Las Vegas" tax evasion loophole used by some businesses (mainly financial) that open a Post Office box in Nevada and then claim business routed through that box comes from Nevada, so earnings escape Wisconsin taxation. Some $90 million a year is lost that way. Democrats would use that recovered money for technical colleges ($5 million), transportation ($50 million), child care ($15 million) and a few smaller programs.

Twenty-one states already have closed the Las Vegas loophole; two more come into effect soon, and six more are considering it. In the Midwest, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan have closed the loophole and Iowa is debating doing so.

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