Wisconsin is not alone in facing a hefty bill for future road and transportation projects to help keep its infrastructure modern and in a position to move traffic and commerce at an efficient clip. A commission appointed by Gov. Scott Walker issued a report last week that called for a combination of higher gas taxes and registration fees to generate $4.8 billion over 10 years to pay for transportation projects.
That report was quickly declared dead on arrival by legislative leaders and Walker, who rejected the notion of raising taxes and fees that would amount to about $120 a year for the average driver.
"Raising taxes will only serve to damage our recovering economy," Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said in a joint statement with Speaker Robin Vos. "Any increase in the state gas tax is simply off the table."
The governor's spokesman said Walker will release his own transportation plan in the state budget Feb. 20 and noted his approach favors using general fund tax money to pay for such projects. While it may be good public relations for politicians to reject tax increases out of hand, it is not good public policy to fudge hard truths to the electorate they serve.
Walker owes it to the people of Wisconsin to fully lay out the choices and consequences of how we pay for infrastructure. Every dollar increase in general tax fund revenues allocated to transportation means fewer for other areas. For instance, State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, has called for a $100 million increase in school aid for K-12 education the first year of the budget and another $200 million the second year.
"I'm probably not going to get it but I can't say nothing," Olsen, who is chairman of the Senate's Education Committee and a member of the powerful budget-writing committee, told the Associated Press. "If you want something, you have to lay down a marker."
State leaders face a host of other markers following a budget that dramatically decreased spending across the board as Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion deficit. Recent budget forecasts say the state is running a $484 million surplus, but already many of those dollars are already spoken for in the governor's call for an income tax cut. And with tax breaks going into effect this year for state manufacturers and agriculture, there is precious little wiggle room.
If Walker taps the general fund for increased transportation funding he needs to acknowledge that means fewer dollars for education, healthcare and aids to local government. It may be politically prudent to reject tax increases out of hand, but it is far more forthright to directly ask users to pay for services.
Directly linking gas tax increases and higher registration fees for road projects is far preferable to a Faustian choice of further erosion in the social safety net or investments in education.
The Final Thought: State needs an honest discussion about transportation funding.