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Aug 11, 201402:20 PMTransportation Matters

with Debby Jackson

One issue we can (almost) all agree on this November

(page 1 of 2)

This November we will have the opportunity to vote on more than just candidates for federal, state, and local races. We will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would require that gas tax and vehicle registration fee dollars remain in the transportation fund to be used to pay for the transportation system we use every day.

Why is this question on the ballot? Well, many of you probably remember that we went through a decade — from 2000-09 — in which the Legislature and governor diverted about $1.4 billion from the transportation fund to try to fill holes in the state’s general fund.

Not shockingly, the let’s-try-to-get-through-today-in-the-least-painful-way-possible approach has had less-than-stellar long-term ramifications. We largely issued bonds to repay the money that was taken out of the transportation fund because our constitution does allow you to bond for capital improvements like roads and bridges but not for the ongoing operations of the state. They were generally 10- to 20-year notes. I can’t tell you what the exact interest rate is on those notes because they have been subsequently refinanced and rolled in with other debt, but it’s safe to say that the state will be using general tax dollars to pay debt service on this for years to come. That is money that will not go to K-12 education or shared revenues for locals or whatever.

In fact, this use of one-time monies out of the transportation fund earned Wisconsin dubious notoriety at the national level. In 2009, the Pew Center on the States issued a report titled “Beyond California. States in Fiscal Peril.” Here’s what the center had to say: “Our report states that California’s budget problems are in a league of their own. But Wisconsin has had persistent budget shortfalls — the state has had a negative general fund balance from fiscal years 2002-2008, according to its own Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports. Additionally, Wisconsin has used short-term fixes to meet budget challenges, such as relying on its transportation fund to cover day-to-day operating expenses.”

But let’s not dwell on the past. The positive thing going forward is that the Legislature, in a refreshingly bipartisan way, has given us the ability to take this option off the table. That is no small feat. In order to get this question placed on the November ballot, both the state Assembly and Senate had to pass the exact same joint resolution, without amendment, in two consecutive legislative sessions. They did that. So when we step into the voting booth on Nov. 4, there will be a question on the ballot that will read:

Creation of a Transportation Fund.

Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?

If more than 50% of us vote yes, the constitution will be amended, making it unconstitutional to spend our gas taxes and vehicle registration fees on anything other than the maintenance and upkeep of Wisconsin’s transportation system.

In a recent poll, we asked Wisconsinites if they support changing the state constitution to require that transportation revenues, such as gas tax and vehicle registration fees, be used only for transportation.

Seventy-five percent said they support such a change. They also told us they view this simply as common sense.

Those who did not support the change may be questioning whether we really need to amend the state constitution to achieve this goal. My answer to them is that we most certainly do. And legislators themselves have apparently acknowledged what many of us have discovered over the years. The best way to avoid temptation is to remove it.


Old to new | New to old
Aug 13, 2014 12:32 am
 Posted by  Mrbillsbrain

Mr. Thompson,
Thank you for getting the word out on this important referendum. Even though this transportation fund was originally called the Highway Trust Fund as your letter indicates whenever a non principled politician, Governor or entire party sees a pile of money they can't be trusted with the temptation to make it their own is too much for them to resist.
I agree wholeheartedly with user fees and asking the users to pay their fair share. If this is passed a constitutional amendment it could enhance, stabilize and make careful planning much easier and predictable.
Personally, I'd like to see all transportation users pay proportionately into the system- bicycle, motorcycle,city and intra city bus, boating, trains, etc as well as the gas tax, registration license fee, truck and bus fees levied. Using or more accurately abusing the user fee by subsidizing transportation museums, highway beautification, bike paths and bridges is a subsidy for wants and not need- and should be eliminated or have yearly license fees, contributions pay for these "extras" that so few people actually use by the people who do use them. It would simply take a bit longer to get these wanted but not needed extras.

Aug 20, 2014 10:05 am
 Posted by  Matt Logan

It is odd that we need to amend the constitution to protect against a supposed economic harm that proponents cannot quantify. How much the interest on the 2009 bonding is going to cost taxpayers is indeed an interesting question, but is the interest rightly categorized as a harm to transportation users? After all, a lot of that money went to keeping schools open and operating with minimal cuts. We all benefited from that spending - so why is paying interest on debt accumulated for that spending a bad thing?

And if we are going to start having everyone pay for what they use, the most urgent need is to address the fact that only 17% of local road costs are funded by user fees on automobile enthusiasts. The sheer volume of roads suggests we need a doubling of gas taxes in order to arrive at a true user pays system. Once we have addressed this yawning chasm that allows motorists to steal billions of dollars from general revenues, then we can address the other issues, like bike path funding, which accounts for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the diversions.

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About This Blog

 Debby Jackson assumed the role of executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin after more than 15 years with the organization. In addition to her vast experience in association management and transportation advocacy, Jackson has a background in business. She leverages the breadth and depth of her professional experience, along with her knowledge of the membership and mission of TDA, to be a strong voice for robust transportation infrastructure in Wisconsin. Jackson started her career as a staff auditor with Price Waterhouse, which led to a series of accounting and corporate management positions with a major national retailer.

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