Raise The Gas Tax Already

Regular readers know that I have written any number of similar posts over the years…often as former Governor Scott Walker and the GOP legislative leadership struggled with funding Wisconsin’s transportation needs (i.e. highways).

And the problem hasn’t gone away but the players have changed. In his 2019 – 2021 budget proposal, Governor Tony Evers proposes an 8 to 10 cent per gallon (depending on the media outlet) gasoline tax hike. But GOP leadership immediately said no without even taking a breath.

Now at least they have taken a step to address the issue and raise revenues. But boy have they taken a long circuitous path. They want to raise fees instead…big time.

Now I don’t quite understand their reluctance to raise the gas tax. Is it the word tax? Although I’ll argue that a fee is still a tax, it still has a thorn despite smelling like a rose to no taxers. Or is it the fact that a Democrat is proposing the change and they need to be against all things Democratic.

Well, here is what they are proposing instead:

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee voted Thursday night to increase vehicle title fees by $95 and registration fees by $10 to generate hundreds of millions for Wisconsin road projects in the next state budget.

Altogether, the moves would generate $393 million in new revenue for transportation, a total about $200 million less than Gov. Tony Evers wanted, but more than in any budget signed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Republicans would also use another $90 million from the state’s general fund to pay for road projects, bringing the total new funding to $484 million.

Evers also called for increasing fees on heavy trucks, which do the most damage to Wisconsin roads, which would have generated about $72 million.

Republicans rejected the gas tax increase and the fee on heavy trucks.

Instead, they voted to raise the current vehicle registration fee from $75 to $85 per year and increase the vehicle title fee from $69.50 to $164.50 — an increase of 137 percent.

emphasis mine

I stated my reasons for increasing the gas tax a number of times…but it won’t hurt to refresh the points here.

First, it is a usage tax. Those who drive the most generally buy the most gas and would pay the most to build and maintain the state’s roads and highways.

Second, nearly every user would pay the gas tax including out of state visitors and travelers who are simply traversing the state to go elsewhere. They contribute to the wear and tear on the highways and should shoulder some of the burden.

Third, although the GOP will tell you that the gas tax is regressive…and it is…at some point the base belief is those able to travel more are more likely those most able to afford the taxes.

Fourth, I thought the GOP loved pay as you go kinda stuff.

One thing missing from a gas tax…is how do you handle hybrids and pure electric cars that use little or no gasoline. That supposedly is one of the reasons the GOP went down their road. (see footnote below)

Now a 137% increase in the title fee and an increase in the licensing fees is truly regressive. Every car would pay the same fees. No matter their age or their value or how much they are driven. And someone buying a 1998 Toyota Corolla is less likely able to pay $164.50 for their title than the purchaser of a 2019 Honda Accord. And they are probably not putting up the same mileage numbers either. I think the gas tax is the more affordable way to go for many.

Here’s one thing coming out of the GOP bill that I don’t quite understand

Annual fees for light trucks would be set at $100 — a $25 increase for trucks weighing 4,500 pounds, and a $55 cut for trucks weighing 10,000 pounds.

emphasis mine

Why would we cut fees on the vehicles who do the most damage to Wisconsin highways? Whose pocket is getting lined here? Which business group is filling campaign coffers? Is the GOP once again adding to the burden of the average citizen to the advantage of a special interest group? It certainly isn’t to support sales of larger vehicles which are already at record levels. I think that fee should be left where it is.

There would appear to be a lot of room for compromise here. A small increase in fees plus a gas tax increase somewhere between zero and ten cents…or gas tax increases implemented in parcels over the two year budget. But that’s not likely to happen in the Madison legislature’s policy of scorched earth responses to all thing Democratic.

“This is the most significant investment of new revenues into our transportation system in more than a generation,” said GOP Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, co-chairman of the committee.

Let me remind Rep. Nygren, that his party was in complete control of state government in Wisconsin for nearly half of that period. Any shortcomings in support of Wisconsin infrastructure falls heavily on their hands.

btw: Here’s a sadly humorous aside from one of ‘prominent’ state senators:

“In general we’re listening to our constituents who all over this state said, ‘Fix these damn roads,’” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. “They feel like their roads are deteriorating, and they want us to address rehab.”

They feel like their roads are deteriorating? How does she get from River Hills to Madison without noticing the condition of Wisconsin’s roads and highways? Man oh man, you can’t make this stuff up.

FOOTNOTE on Hybrids:

Hybrid vehicles. Lawmakers two years ago established surcharges of $100 for electric vehicles and $75 for hybrid vehicles, but the Department of Transportation wasn’t able to impose them on hybrid vehicles because legislators wrote the measure in a way that made it difficult to identify which vehicles owed them.

Republicans went along with a plan by Evers to tweak the phrasing of the measure so the department can start collecting those fees. 

Wisconsin GOP Endorses Taxation Without Representation!

Yeah, here we go:

Sixteen lawmakers on their own could impose fees of any amount to help pay for roads under a plan Republican legislators advanced late Thursday.

The proposal would allow the Joint Finance Committee to establish new fees based on how many miles vehicles drove, starting in 2023. The rest of the Legislature wouldn’t get a say in the matter under the plan. 

Republicans on the committee included the provision in a massive transportation package they added to the state budget Thursday. 

After years of being unable to put together comprehensive transportation plans…even in years that the Republicans held not only both houses of the legislature but also the governor’s office…they still can’t pull it off. Even when they should supposedly be unified against a Democratic governor.

But who would have expected that they’d pull another all out power grab and deny representation to their constituents and the residents of the state. Oh yeah…I know they are calling these ‘fees’…but when the state collects revenues from citizens and businesses for any purpose they are actually taxes.

But this is really egregious…Wisconsin has 33 state senators and 99 members of the assembly but are ready to allow 16 committee members to determine taxes to be levied against Wisconsinites. With barely any controls…they can demand millions of dollars for transportation without the other 116 representatives weighing in on it.

Taxes and fees should always…always…be discussed openly in the legislature. Every representative should have an opportunity to weigh in and have their vote recorded. Every resident should have their chance to weigh in with their assembly representative and their state senator. Every resident should know how their reps voted so they can decide how to vote during the next election cycle.

I don’t even know if this would pass constitutional muster but it shouldn’t even get that far. If you are concerned about this newest power grab, let your state representatives know. If this actually makes it into the GOP’s Frankenstein budget I don’t think it will survive the governor’s veto pen.

State Rejects Double Deck I-94 Plan But:

Today the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said they were rejecting their totally unpopular proposal to expand I-94 from 16th Street to 70th Street by creating a double decker freeway:

The proposed expansion of the I-94 east-west freeway between 16th and 70th streets in Milwaukee will be accomplished in the traditional way by adding a lane of traffic in each direction, state transportation officials said Tuesday.

Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said the state has rejected a costly double-deck option for 2,000 feet of the corridor through the cemetery area immediately west of the Stadium Interchange.

The revised cost of the eight-lane expansion is estimated at $850 million — less than the $1.5 billion estimate for the most expensive option, Gottlieb said.

For the short stretch west of the Stadium Interchange, the department has proposed converting the outside shoulder to a fourth lane in each direction.

So we are still getting a fourth lane in each direction but losing an emergency shoulder lane instead. How completely unimaginative.

Has anybody from DOT actually ever visited other urban freeways? Didn’t anyone ever consider reversible express lanes? Sounds like a perfect solution for traffic flows that are pretty ‘time of day’ sensitive.

Those goofy movable center strips work just fine to move traffic one way or the other depending on time of day needs for the Hoan Bridge reconstruction. I wouldn’t advocate that method for this expansion but typical reversible express lanes would just be the thing!

And did they really decide it was the wrong thing to do or did the thought of additional borrowing to pay for highway construction dissuade them? I am not sure that even the Republican legislature has the stomach for more highway borrowing.

P.S. My original thoughts on the rebuild!