Democrats are putting on a good show with efforts to pass a regional transit system in southeastern Wisconsin that would combine bus systems and allow KRM commuter rail to move forward.
But it's an open secret in the Legislature that Democratic leadership, particularly in the Senate, will not allow a transit proposal reach the floor for a vote, according to a Democrat insider with knowledge of the negotiations.
The RTA and KRM are DOA.
Democratic leaders have no interest in pushing any of the proposals circulating around the Capitol that would combine Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties into a regional transit authority paid for with some sort of combination of taxes, transportation aids and local government spending.
Majority Leader Russ Decker and other top Democrats are afraid pushing the proposal will force Democratic legislators to either vote for a tax increase or vote against KRM commuter rail. Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, is of particular concern because he's up for re-election this November against Republican Van Wanggaard.
"Lehman is terrified of voting for any sort of tax increase," according to the Democratic insider. "Call it the Petak effect."
Former state Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, switched his vote in the middle of the night in favor of a tax increase on Racine County to pay for the new Miller Park. Local residents threw him out of office and replaced him with Democrat Kim Plache.
Lehman is afraid voters will do the same to him. He's so skittish on the possibility he's even afraid to vote for fellow Racine Democrat Cory Mason's plan that would allow Racine County to join an RTA without passing a tax increase. The plan does call for a sales tax increase in Milwaukee, and Lehman is fearful he'll be linked to the tax increase.
Decker, who's trying to hold on to control of the State Senate through the November election, will not allow any transit legislation come up for a vote this spring, according to the Democratic insider.
"All of this is being done so Lehman doesn't have to vote on KRM," the insider said. "They want it to look like he supports it, but never has to vote on it."
The insider provided detailed specifics on how Democrat leaders in the Senate intend to kill the legislation. The plan was to have Sen. Jim Holperin, chairman of the Senate's Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry, and Natural Resources, basically pass the bill (SB205) to Sen. Jeff Plale, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Utilities, Energy, and Rail, who would sit on it and refuse to allow it to come up for a vote.
"Once it gets to Plale it's in a blackhole," the insider said.
Holperin apparently complicated things by refusing to release the bill, the insider said. Regardless, Decker will never allow the full Senate to vote on an RTA for southeastern Wisconsin.
The Democratic insider added it may not matter. Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha need a "consistent dedicated source" of income to receive $250 million in federal money to build the KRM commuter rail system. That basically means they need to agree to a regional sales tax, which isn't going to happen.
Mason and Milwaukee Rep. Tamara Grigsby released a plan that would avoid a sales, wheel or room tax for Racine County, but that plan won't pass muster with the federal government, the insider said. Gov. Jim Doyle's plan is the best option, they said, but Democrats' efforts to protect Lehman will kill the proposal.
"The whole process is frustrating since the votes for a three-county RTA with a consistant funding source would pass is Lehman would stop playing politics and do the right thing," the insider said. "It's an easy vote for him, but he's trying to have it both ways."
In summary: the RTA is dead, and KRM commuter rail is dead along with it.