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Bill brings inspector general to troubled transportation department

By   /   March 7, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. — In the wake of revelations of agency waste and incompetence, a state lawmaker wants to install an inspector general inside the troubled state Department of Transportation.

State Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, on Tuesday circulated a bill creating the inspector general post to provide more oversight to an agency under fire for significantly underestimating the price tag for current and completed highway projects.

MORE OVERSIGHT: State. Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, is circulating a bill that would bring an inspector general to the troubled state Department of Transportation.

The Legislative Audit Bureau found the department failed to fully account for inflation and underestimated cost projections for 16 major highway projects by about $3.1 billion.

A total of 363 DOT contracts between 2006 and 2015 — about 16 percent of the total — received only one bid each, according to the audit. That accounts for $1.1 billion in projects and untold millions of dollars in added costs.

“And we know that when there’s no competition, it drives up the price dramatically,” Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation said last month.

RELATED: New DOT secretary dealing with trust deficit more than budget ‘shortfall’

Under the bill, the DOT inspector general would be appointed to six-year term by the state auditor, and serve at the direction of the audit bureau and the Legislature.

“Placing an investigator inside the DOT will ensure that legislators play a more active role in rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in government. The latest audit of the DOT made clear we need a proactive oversight arm within this agency,” the senator said in a press release.

The inspector general would be funded from existing DOT appropriations, Craig said. The IG would provide annual reports to the audit bureau and legislative standing committees.

Unlike the federal IG system in which inspector generals ultimately report to the secretaries of the agencies they oversee, Craig’s bill calls for the state inspector to be independent from the agency she audits.

“This legislation is an important reform to increase legislative oversight in state government and root out bad practices within the DOT,” Craig said. “The information gathered and reported by the Inspector General will help our efforts to realize substantial savings to taxpayers.”

At a hearing last month, newly appointed DOT Secretary David Ross noted that the most monumental task he faces is restoring the public’s trust in an agency that has abused it.

In his testimony to the state Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee, Ross said he was particularly taken by surprise by one of the findings in a critical state audit of the agency he joined on Jan. 7.

“The (Interstate) I-39/90 and U.S. Highway 12/18 junction in Madison, the audit noted that the Beltline interchange costs were not included in the I-39/90 cost estimate listed in the TPC (total project cost) report,” Ross said. “Costs for this interchange are dependent on the ongoing environmental process, but the recent estimate put the full costs in the range of $550 million not included in the TPC.”

“How is it if we’re going to build confidence with you as an agency and miss $550 million in a report,” Ross asked lawmakers. “You’re going to have no trust in the numbers we give you, the data we give you, with which you have to make those very, very important decisions in allocating resources in the transportation system.”

Last week, it was announced the DOT has curtailed its study of a potential expansion of interstate highways between Madison and tourism hot spot Wisconsin Dells.

“The cancellation of these studies makes sense for us at this time,” Transportation spokeswoman Patty Mayers told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The primary focus now is to improve, maintain and preserve what we have.”

‘ACTIVE ROLE’: Sen. David Craig says an investigator inside the DOT ‘will ensure that legislators play a more active role in rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in government.’

Turmoil in Wisconsin’s transportation department has made for interesting political bedfellows, as Democrats and Assembly Republican leadership find themselves on the same page, pushing “revenue enhancers” such as gas tax proposals to help fill an approximately $1 billion “shortfall.”

Gov. Scott Walker has made it clear that he’s not interested in raising fees and taxes without corresponding budget cuts elsewhere, and Senate Republican leadership doesn’t sound crazy about tax hikes, either, in a state with one of the highest gas taxes in the country.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his legislative lieutenants have been hammering home their opposition to Walker’s transportation budget proposal, which allocates $6.1 billion for the DOT.

Expect delays ahead, tweeted state Rep. Jim Steineke, the Assembly’s majority leader.

“Current plan for DOT: major proj delays, no new projects for decades & we still have to borrow $500 million to get there,” the Kaukauna Republican declared in a tweet Monday.

There’s a lot of transportation tension going around, with a lot more Wisconsin road builder campaign money at stake.

Walker’s budget plan, while not nearly enough to appease the road builder lobby and their lawmakers, does include the highest level of transportation general aids ever. Fiscal hawks agree there’s too much borrowing in Walker’s transportation budget, but they note that bonding for highway construction is down 41 percent, the lowest level since the 2001-03 budget.

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.