One issue we can (almost) all agree on this November
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.
If you are dieting and you have a soft spot for potato chips (Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar are the best), then make sure you don’t have them around the house. I even have science on my side. According to Medical News Today, “Precommitment, defined as ‘the voluntary restriction of access to temptations,’ is a ‘more effective self-control strategy than willpower,’ say researchers from the Universities of Cambridge in the UK and Dusseldorf in Germany, in a report published online in the journal Neuron.”
In fact, most of our neighboring states as well as the majority of states in the U.S. have already helped their elected officials “precommit” by constitutionally restricting the use of transportation user fees.
All joking aside, this is an important issue for the future of our transportation system in Wisconsin. While this constitutional amendment will not solve all of our transportation funding woes, it will restore the faith of users of the system.
Our elected officials have given all of us the opportunity to fix this situation. On Nov. 4, we simply need to vote YES for Transportation.
If you want to find out more about this, you can go to www.voteyesfortansportation.com. If you really like what you see, you can order yourself a Vote Yes for Transportation bumper sticker.
In addition to serving as executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, Craig Thompson is also secretary for the referendum committee Vote Yes for Transportation.
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