For Want of a Transportation Policy, Wisconsin Has No Budget

Like many states, Wisconsin has a balanced budget amendment in its Constitution and is supposed to pass a biennial budget before July 1st in odd numbered years. Unlike New Jersey which had to shut down because the state budget wasn’t passed on time, if Wisconsin misses the deadline, the previous budget rules the day until the new budget is signed into law.

And Wisconsin missed their deadline…and as of today…July 19, 2017…we still don’t have a state budget (that is a big deal but that’s another post)…but don’t worry…Speaker Robin Vos isn’t concerned:

“It’s an artificial deadline,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who readily acknowledges that the budget will be late. “I’m not worried about it.”

So why did Wisconsin miss passing it’s budget? Well it basically comes down to how to fund transportation…which in Wisconsin simply translates into road building. But Governor Scott Walker is adamantly opposed to increasing gasoline taxes to build roads and that wily ‘fiscally responsible’ Republican would prefer to borrow MORE money to the tune of about $700 MILLION. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in a moment of clarity refuses to consider kicking this particular can down the road and doesn’t want to continue borrowing funds for roads and has amazingly been the most reasonable adult under the dome…who woulda thought. And the Senate under the leadership of Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald seems to be blowing in the wind.

The logical approach is to raise the gasoline tax. The price of gasoline is at historically low levels and an increased tax would be fairly easily borne by the motoring public. And the mechanism to collect it is already in place and everybody knows how it works. Easy peasy. Makes sense. Gasoline taxes collect taxes from highway and road users based relatively on their usage. Yeah, I know hybrids and electric cars don’t use gasoline in the same way but there would be time to adjust for that. Except for Governor Walker’s self imposed tax denial and Scott Fitzgerald’s enabler tendencies. So although the Assembly would prefer to go that way…nothing doin’

Tolls were floated. I don’t believe the Assembly ever got on board with this proposal but I think the governor did and the senate was ready to rock and roll it. The theory was put toll collection sites at the borders. Idea being that tolls would be collected from our neighbors visiting Wisconsin in a higher proportion that Wisconsin residents…but that’s a bit of hogwash…particularly if you look along border counties near Chicago or Minneapolis where Wisconsin residents commute into the bigger cities. And then there is the additional infrastructure necessary to collect tolls…booths…electronic passes…more concrete…more staff…and a collection learning curve. If we can’t fund basic roads where are we going to find the money to build a toll way infrastructure. That one didn’t last long.

Then there was the meeting of the minds and everyone from all three branches thought there was an agreement to tax the mileage travelled by big trucks. Something that a number of other states have implemented successfully. So there is a template to follow and certainly the infrastructure involved isn’t as pricey. And it makes sense since heavy trucks do more damage to roadways than automobiles. That all seemed to be going well until, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group opposed the fees because they would raise the cost of doing business and therefore raise the cost of goods in Wisconsin. (I’ve got news for them, Econ 101 again: a toll or a gas tax increase will do the same thing). And then the Senate backed out of the deal.

So where are we now? The governor suggested lower borrowing for the transportation fund…which would slow down or stop a number of ongoing and planned road building initiatives. But today…the Senate embraced the borrowing of $712 million dollars to fund transportation…half of it paid for out of the transportation fund…and the other half paid out of general revenues…the funds that normally go to schools and healthcare and shared revenues for local governments…I can hear that can rolling down a potholed I-94 as we speak.

Pass a damn gasoline tax already. Find a way to have hybrids and electric cars pay their way. And add the truck mileage fees as well. Make transportation fund itself…that actually seems like the fiscally conservative tack to take!


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