Out of Office But Not Out of the Conversation

Wisconsin's longtime transportation secretary stepped down last year but is still feuding with lawmakers.
by | August 2018
Mark Gottlieb
(Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection)

Mark Gottlieb, Wisconsin’s longtime transportation chief, resigned his post in 2017 after making several failed attempts to increase state funding for roads. Now that he’s on the outside, he still finds himself fighting his old boss, Gov. Scott Walker, for more funding. Walker opposes any new revenue for transportation, even as the state struggles to find money for major projects.

For Gottlieb, a civil engineer and former GOP lawmaker, frustrations have been building among Republicans since 2011, when Gottlieb led a 15-month study of the state’s transportation finances. The 176-page report, released in 2013, laid out four scenarios for how the state might pay for its future transportation needs and what would happen as a result. The cheapest strategy would still have required an extra $2 billion of new money over a decade. At the other end of the spectrum, making substantial improvements to highways, public transit, airport, freight rail and commercial port systems would have taken an estimated $17.1 billion.

Walker and the Republican-led legislature repeatedly chose none of the above. “It went absolutely nowhere,” Gottlieb says now. “It was a failure of anyone taking leadership on the issue. You’ve got a core group of Republican legislators in both houses, but especially in the Senate, who won’t ever support a revenue increase. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t come to Madison to raise taxes.’ So the only way you’re going to get leadership is with the governor.”

Gottlieb built the commission’s findings into his agency’s request for the two-year budget that started in 2015. Again, the idea stalled. Then, in December 2016, just a week after defending Walker’s plan to cut major road projects in a contentious legislative hearing, Gottlieb announced he would be stepping down. “I reached the point,” he says, “that I felt like I would probably be asked to do and say things that I didn’t want to do and say.”

Since Gottlieb left, the transportation funding debate has grown more contentious. It caused a three-month budget impasse in Madison last year, which was resolved only when lawmakers increased fees on hybrid and electric vehicles while reducing the transportation agency’s bonding capacity. Funding shortfalls forced the state to put off major highway projects, including the planned $1.1 billion expansion of Interstate 94 through Milwaukee.

Lately, Gottlieb has been defending his stewardship of the state transportation agency against charges from a conservative think tank that the agency’s budget was bloated. Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, says a state audit completed shortly after Gottlieb left office highlighted several instances of wasteful spending at the department. The MacIver Institute cited what it called ill-advised schemes to add pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and expand the development of roundabouts.

Healy says it’s telling that Gottlieb wouldn’t concede any of the projects on his list were unnecessary. “You couldn’t find one example of wasteful or questionable spending on our list that you agree with? Not even one?” Healy wrote in an email. “It shouldn’t surprise taxpayers because bureaucrats always defend more government spending and higher taxes. Always.”

Transportation funding has become an increasingly important issue in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, and Gottlieb has been weighing in, arguing that Wisconsin still needs to find more money for roads and transportation. Walker is running for a third term as governor this fall, and he’s a slight favorite to hold onto his seat. If he wins, chances are he’ll be hearing from his former adviser again.