Michels was also board president of a group that opposed a bill that would have stopped companies that employ illegal immigrants from getting government contracts.
For years, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and his family-run company have been involved in groups that pushed aggressively for increases in the Wisconsin gas tax and vehicle registration fees, Wisconsin Right Now has documented.
Some of the groups have deep ties to Democrats and the Tony Evers’ administration, which has supported increasing the gas tax. Evers’ 2019-2021 budget proposal would have increased the gas tax and indexed it each year on April 1 to inflation. Indexing is an automatic increase in the gas tax.
Michels himself once served as board president of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, and he was on the executive board of the Transportation Development Association. That group’s president has directly advocated for increasing the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Michels touts the fact that he can self-finance and is not beholden to powerful special interest groups; however, for years, he and his company have been part of powerful special interest groups seeking to increase their profits through public contracts that are funded, in part, through things like the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Those fees flow into the state’s Transportation Fund, where they are doled out to public contracts for road and bridge projects and the like. Michels’ family’s company has had nearly $1.2 billion in contracts with the state of Wisconsin for such projects.
Whether that’s a problem or disqualifying is up to voters. Of course, Michels Corp. has also created many family-supporting jobs in the state over the years.
Michels’ family-run company remains involved in the groups to this day. His company’s representative served as management trustee for Construction Business Group through April 2022, according to the Wayback machine. Michels Corp.’s representative has now vanished from CBG’s website. Michels Corp. remains a current TDA member, and a company representative is the first vice president of WTBA’s board.
Michels Corp. has also directly funded attempts to increase the gas tax in other states, Wisconsin Right Now has learned.
A Michels Corp. subsidiary, Michels Pipeline Construction, contributed nearly $20,000 to the California Alliance for Jobs – Rebuild California PAC. The group was the largest contributor to the No Proposition 6 Campaign, which opposed a repeal of the state’s gas tax hike.
Michels Corp. and Michels Pipeline Construction also gave to groups in Illinois that favored raising the gas tax. They contributed to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 PAC and to its Statesman of the Year State and Local PAC. IUOE Local 150 supported Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $41 billion transportation plan that included a gas tax hike and increased registration fees. Pritzker later signed legislation that doubled the state’s gas taxes.
Over the years, some of these powerful lobbying organizations staked out other positions that aren’t exactly conservative. In the 2007-2008 Legislative session, when Michels was board president of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association (WTBA), for example, the group lobbied against a bill preventing companies that employ illegal immigrants from getting government contracts and loans.
That session, with Michels as board president, the WTBA group opposed a bill that would give school districts refunds for the tax the districts paid on the fuel. They also opposed a bill creating an excise tax exemption on gasoline and diesel fuel sold to school districts to transport students. The group appeared at a public hearing in both cases.
In other years, the group lobbied against a bill that would have removed automatic hikes in the gas tax, called indexing, and opposed a joint resolution calling “for an advisory referendum on the question of whether the legislature should restore the annual adjustment of the motor vehicle fuel tax rate. The referendum is to be held at the spring 2009 election.”
The WTBA group lobbied for a bill to require that sales and use taxes on motor vehicle parts be deposited into the state Transportation Fund (instead of being given to counties and municipalities through state aid.)
The group also opposed a bill that prevented excessive gas prices. “Under the bill, a retailer of gasoline consisting of at least 85 percent ethanol may not charge an excessive price. A price is excessive under the bill if it exceeds 150 percent of the minimum retail price required under the Unfair Sales Act or ‘minimum markup’ law,” the bill read.
Throughout the years, including recently, the group’s representatives have continued to aggressively push increases in the gas tax and transportation budget it funds.
The groups collectively spent well over a million dollars lobbying legislators over the years.
CBG and WTBA advocated against repealing prevailing wage, which requires workers to be paid a certain amount through government contracts. TDA worked almost exclusively on increasing transportation budgets.
WTBA even opposed a bill creating penalties for false claims by contractors doing state work.
WTBA showed a distaste for giving the public a voice and opposed Transportation Fund audits. The WTBA group lobbied against making municipalities seek a public referendum in order to raise the wheel tax on consumers, for example.
We asked Michels for his position on the gas tax in particular, as consumers struggle with skyrocketing prices at the pump. He says he would consider a gas tax holiday. And his campaign sent out a fiery email calling claims by former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch “garbage,” when she said on television that he was tied to attempts to raise the gas tax.
In a statement to Wisconsin Right Now, Michels tried to sever himself from groups his own company has aligned with for years, saying, “I am a Republican, but I don’t agree with everything every Republican does. Michels Corporation is and has been a member of dozens of trade associations, but that doesn’t mean I personally agree with everything every one of them does. I will note that I am the only candidate in this race who is rejecting financial support from any special interest PAC or lobbyist for any industry or group.”
Yet the lobbying interests of the groups make it very clear that for years they consistently fought for one thing: increased transportation funding.
Michels further noted: “The best way to get relief at the pump is to increase American energy production, but I am willing to consider a gas tax holiday and repeal of the minimum mark up as well. As someone who was helping build the Keystone XL pipeline before Biden shut it down, I know energy policy. It’s not a talking point in a political stump speech for me. Unlike my opponents, I have actually worked to make America energy independent.”
He continued, “Infrastructure is vitally important to public safety and a healthy economy, but all government spending has to be justified and balanced with the impact on those who pay the bills. I would not introduce a gas tax hike or a return to indexing. Automatic tax hikes only benefit insiders by protecting them from having to justify their position.”
One of the groups tied to Michels, the Transportation Development Association, was previously led by Tony Evers’ Secretary of Transportation. Another is run by a former Democratic state assemblyman who has repeatedly praised Gov. Evers’ efforts to raise the gas tax and criticized the Scott Walker administration for holding the line on the gas tax.
That assemblyman, Robb Kahl, executive director of Construction Business Group, trashed Walker, writing, “Governor Walker has not kept his word to the Wisconsin construction industry. Even though the construction industry supported him in many of his election bids-including his recall election-Governor Walker turned on the industry.”
For months, a group of lobbyists (including some affiliated with road-building groups) and other policy advocates tried to recruit an alternative to Kleefisch in the governor’s race and are now supporting Michels.
Their concerns focused on perceptions about whether Kleefisch can win but also disgust over Walker’s handling of the transportation budget and his refusal to raise the gas tax to replenish it.
This was a big public issue at the time. Some Michels’ supporters believe that Walker mismanaged that issue. When we asked Michels for his opinion on Walker’s transportation budget, however, he had only kind words to say about the former governor.
“Generally, Scott Walker’s budgets were very good, which is why I was one of his biggest supporters,” Michels told WRN. “Barbara and I, like we have for Ron Johnson, invited him into our home in Waukesha County and held a fundraiser for him. To be perfectly clear, I helped Scott Walker and had no part in the funding or implementation of any effort to defeat him. It is a garbage political smear that others have anonymously tried to spread during this campaign, and there is no truth to any of it. I voted for Scott Walker, financially supported him, and wished he would have beaten Tony Evers. Period.”
As company VP and co-owner, Tim Michels holds significant sway over the positions his company takes publicly and how they spend company dollars to influence decision-making in Madison. The other two top members of the company are his brothers. Michels has said he will divest himself from the family company if he wins the governor’s race.
One of the groups, CBG, lists the union Operating Engineers 139 Local as a “partner organization.” That union was publicly behind the infamous “Scott Holes” ads of 2018 that may have cost Governor Walker the election and tried to make the case that he had botched the Transportation Fund. Michels has denied any involved in Scott Holes.
We break down the three groups here.
Transportation Development Association
Michels Corp. is currently a Transportation Development Association member. Michels himself personally served on the executive committee for TDA, touting his involvement on his campaign website for the U.S. Senate. TDA directly advocated an increase in Wisconsin’s gas tax. TDA’s former president, Craig Thompson, is now Tony Evers’ Secretary of Transportation. Thompson worked with Evers to propose increasing the gas tax by nearly 40 percent.
Since 2015, TDA’s lobbying efforts in Wisconsin have been 100 percent focused on transportation funding. The group has spent nearly half a million dollars exclusively on this issue, attempting to influence Wisconsin policymakers.
That’s not all.
TDA’s Thompson was a member of the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, “a bipartisan citizen commission formed to outline the transportation funding requirements for the coming decade.” It submitted a report to Gov. Walker in January 2013 titled Keep Wisconsin Moving—Smart Investments, Measurable Results [PDF]. It made recommendations through 2023 that included:
- Increasing the state excise tax on motor fuel
- Adopting a mileage-based user fee for passenger vehicles and light trucks
- Increasing the registration fee for weight-based vehicles
- Increasing the driver license fee
- Repealing the sales tax exemption for trade-in vehicles
As part of its efforts, TDA launched the “Just Fix It” campaign, urging lawmakers to spend more on roads by increasing the gas tax. Communications consultant Brian Fraley coordinated this campaign. Fraley is currently a consultant for Michels’ gubernatorial campaign, and to this day, he has “#justfixitwi” in his Twitter biography.
The Transportation Development Association lobbied on the transportation budget over the years, relating to a constitutional amendment to protect the transportation fund. They spent almost $400,000 on lobbying for transportation funding in one two-year span.
When Tim Michels said he was on the executive board of TDA, the organization had an issue paper on their website entitled “Gas Tax Indexing Works for Wisconsin.” (At the same time, Michels was decrying high taxes as a Senate candidate.)
• The whitepaper says that “transportation advocates were also relieved when Governor Doyle and legislative leaders recently voiced their support for gas tax indexing.”
• The paper claimed that the repeal of gas tax indexing “would have negative consequences for every transportation program in the state.”
• The paper concludes by stating that Wisconsin should “be looking to maximize this return by protecting the gas tax user fee system…”
Construction Business Group
As noted, as of April 2022, a Michels Corp. employee sat on CBG’s managerial board. CBG has vocally supported gas tax increases. Construction Business Group’s executive director is Robb Kahl, the former Democratic state assemblyman from Monona, who has repeatedly praised Gov. Evers’ efforts to raise the gas tax and criticized the Walker administration for holding the line on the gas tax. Kahl once said that a 10-cent increase on the gas tax wouldn’t “be enough.”
Construction Business Group praised Governor Evers in an April-2019-139-Newsletter sent to members, saying, “FINALLY! An Administration that gets it.” The newsletter praises the Evers Administration’s actions for increasing the gas tax in his first budget, a move that would have led to a nearly 40-percent spike in the gas tax. Construction Business Group was part of Governor Evers’ road funding task force in 2019 that was supportive of raising the state gas tax up to 10 cents per gallon.
Over the years, CBG has lobbied against limiting the projects that require prevailing wage.
The group also lobbied against a Republican bill that preempted “local governments from enacting or enforcing ordinances related to various employment matters” like collective bargaining.
Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association
Michels Corp. also sits on the board of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, a partner organization of CBG. A Michels Corporation employee is the first vice president of the organization.
Bill McCoshen, a supporter of the Michels campaign, according to conservative talk show host Mark Belling, is a registered lobbyist for WTBA. McCoshen considered running for governor himself briefly as a Kleefisch alternative.
Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association was a part of the Wisconsin DRIVE Coalition, sponsoring its efforts. One of these efforts was a 2018 DRIVE-hosted candidate forum for Tony Evers and four other Democratic gubernatorial candidates seeking to unseat Gov. Scott Walker.
Tony Evers said at this drive forum that he would be willing to hike gas taxes if elected governor. The DRIVE Coalition listed McCoshen as a press contact on its press releases. The DRIVE Coalition bemoaned the condition of Wisconsin’s roads, saying that the gas tax was “becoming necessary” to fund Wisconsin roads.
The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association also advocated for an increase in the federal gas tax. The group signed a letter addressed to President Trump and Congressional leaders asking them to support raising the federal gas tax. WTBA also supported Joe Biden’s $1.1 billion transportation bill, supporting Tammy Baldwin for her vote.
The group was against a bill that eliminated prevailing wage and allowed for an audit of Transportation spending. They lobbied multiple times over the years against prevailing wage changes. They lobbied for a bill that authorized the Department of Transportation to provide funding for reconstruction of the I-94 freeway in Milwaukee County from 70th Street to 16th Street. They lobbied for a bill that would annually increase the rate of the motor vehicle fuel tax, “beginning with the tax imposed on May 1, 2017, to reflect the annual average change in the United States consumer price index.”
We asked Michels when he was personally on the boards of TDA, WTBA and CBG. His campaign responded with an approximation. They said:
-Michels was on TDA as a board member, probably 1999-2003.
-He was on the “TBA” board for 6 years, probably 2005-2011.
-He was President of WTBA, probably 2007-2008.
The campaign noted, “On any given year, Michels has executives serve on many of the boards of nearly 50 trade associations of which they are members.”
We asked the campaign repeatedly if, by referring to TBA, they meant WTBA, which seems likely, but the campaign never responded.