Republicans take a fork in the (disintegrating?) roads
Today’s blog is extra special deplorable for the basket weavers in the peanut gallery.
Nothing is as cohesive or disciplined as a legislature with a one-vote majority. But give any party some cushion and watch its members go free range. That is what is happening to Scott Walker and his Republican legislature.
Battle lines are drawn over transportation funding. It is a face-off of two pet causes dear and near to every conservative: tax cuts versus good roads.
The governor made his bones as a tax cutter. But other rock-solid conservatives like Speaker Robin Vos, Joint Finance Committee chairman John Nygren, and rural Lodi Republican Rep. Keith Ripp demand major road repairs and construction and that will cost money. And they may have support from Democrats!
Source: Transportation Development Assn.
Facing a $1 billion shortfall, Walker proposes increasing maintenance by $70 million and $65 million for local roads over the next two years, but overall transportation spending (mostly roads but also airports, freight rail, and mass transit) would be cut by $447.4 million. The governor would borrow $500 million to make ends meet. Major projects, like Verona Road at Raymond Road would be delayed. (Works for me.)
But many of Wisconsin’s roads are crumbling, this motorcyclist attests. TRIP, a national transportation research group, puts 42% of main Wisconsin roads in mediocre to poor condition; in the Madison area, it’s 68%.
The problem: Fuel-efficient vehicles are using less gasoline, thereby paying less gasoline tax. Electric vehicles avoid the gas tax altogether. It doesn’t help that Jim Doyle raided the transportation fund to balance the budget.
Limited sources of revenue
Which brings up another point: transportation spending does not come out of the sales and income tax-funded general fund. Wisconsin finances road construction and maintenance from just three sources: the gas tax, vehicle registrations, and federal contributions.
Various proposals have been floated to increase transportation funding. In 2013, the DOT-commissioned Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission proposed:
- Raising the state gas tax by five cents per gallon (the first increase since 2006) from the current 30.9 cents and switch to a formula rather than a fixed rate;
- Increasing the fee for the state’s eight-year drivers’ license by $20; and
- Eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of a vehicle.
Two years ago, the Department of Transportation floated these ideas:
- Creating a new 2.5% highway use fee on the purchase price of new automobiles and light trucks;
- Charging owners of hybrid and electric cars an extra $50 on their registration fee.
All told, the proposals would raise $750 million annually and cost the average vehicle owner $120 a year. Proponents claim that’s still lower than transportation taxes and fees in neighboring Minnesota and Iowa.
‘Just Fix It’
The umbrella group pushing road funding is the Transportation Development Association. TDA is a major player. It managed to convince two successive legislatures and the Wisconsin citizens voting in referendum to amend the state constitution to keep the transportation budget off limits from fund raiders like Doyle. That is unprecedented. TDA does not have its own checklist but floats all these proposals as possibilities.
TDA’s executive director Craig Thompson, formerly of the Wisconsin Counties Association, is one of the wiliest operators in the state capitol, adept at using local officials to push state government.
Mark this date: TDA is planning a major PR push across the state with “Just Fix It: Turn Out for Transportation” meetings of local officials in 71 of the 72 counties Thursday, Sept. 29. Dane County supervisors, town, village, and city officials will meet at 7 p.m. in Room 260 of the Madison Municipal Building. (More here.)
It is bound to get news media coverage that will further pressure state legislators and the governor. Their movement has picked up almost 350 resolutions enacted by local governments. (That resolution here.)
The campaign is coordinated with the League of Municipalities, the Towns Association, and Wisconsin Counties Association. Don’t bet against them.
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