Gov. Scott Walker flatly ruled out raising new revenues by increasing gasoline taxes or registration fees. Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said that means the next budget will be so tight several projects will be delayed and the primary focus will have to be on maintaining key roads, while upkeep on secondary routes will take a back seat.
Even so, the transportation fund is expected to experience a shortfall of more than $800 million over the next couple of years.
And now, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, a letter from the governor to federal officials states he intends to pursue a $1 billion road project to widen Interstate 94 in the Milwaukee area. That, by the way, comes after Walker repeatedly has said he wanted no more “megaprojects” for Milwaukee.
CITIZENS MAY BE forgiven for uttering a collective, “Huh?”
Here’s how we interpret it. The governor, who still harbors national ambitions, is determined to take off the campaign table any opponent’s ability to label him a tax-raiser.
On the other hand, he doesn’t want to miss opportunities for federal dollars to pursue projects like the I-94 widening. Likewise, he has shown a willingness to borrow the money he won’t raise through taxes in order to keep at least primary projects inching forward. Yes, borrowing is a short-term fix and, yes, debt actually increases costs in the long run. But it is not a tax increase.
As for delaying maintenance on secondary routes, it takes awhile for roads to crumble — especially those with less travel. But it also threatens Wisconsin’s reputation for good roads and poorly serves business and tourist traffic in those more rural areas.
HERE’S THE KICKER: We suspect Walker would sign his name to additional transportation revenue so long as it doesn’t look like it is his idea. He’s done similar things before. In the midst of his last re-election bid, for example, he called right-to-work legislation a “distraction” and insisted he was not pursuing it. Then, shortly after the votes were counted, Republican legislators made right-to-work the centerpiece of their agenda. The governor not only signed it, he touted it as an accomplishment when he ran for president.
So it’s likely any move to raise additional funds to get transportation back on track will have to originate with Republican leaders in the legislature. There are indications that could happen.
It should. Going deeper in debt budget after budget is bad policy. Higher fuel taxes and other possibilities, like increased registration assessments, arguably amount to user fees — the more you drive, the more you pay. Also, higher fuel taxes allow Wisconsin to capture additional dollars from out-of-staters as they use the roads. And, at some point, it might even make sense to talk about tolling on the interstate highways.
Legislators should take the lead on this matter in the next budget. The governor is not giving them any other choice, unless they’re willing to sit by as Wisconsin’s good roads go bad.