Just Fix It Wisconsin

Journal Times editorial: Time for Wisconsin to pay as we go on roads 12/1/2016

12/1/2016, Racine Journal Times – No one likes to see his or her taxes go up. But most of us recognize that a municipality or state can reach a point where it becomes necessary to raise taxes or fees in order to continue providing an essential service.

We have reached that point in Wisconsin with our roads.

Gov. Scott Walker has vowed not to raise taxes on gasoline or vehicle registration fees to pay for it, unless an equal amount of taxes elsewhere are cut, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

That sounds like a taxpayer-friendly position … on the surface. Walker’s plan is much like what he put forward two years ago: cut and borrow. Two years ago, Walker proposed borrowing $1.3 billion, but the Legislature scaled that back to $850 million. Walker wants to borrow $500 million over the next two years.

If the governor gets his way, that’s $1.3 billion in borrowing over a four-year period. That’s an awfully large can to kick down the road. Oh, and that road may still have potholes in it.

Walker’s plan would devote no money toward a plan to reconstruct Interstate 94 from Milwaukee south to Illinois, leaving the project in Racine and Kenosha counties half-finished. We’ve had our fill of the orange barrels and workers in the spaces on the I we’d like to drive through with our cars and trucks.

In a break from Walker, Assembly Speaker Vos, R-Rochester, and other Assembly Republican leaders want to keep all options open — including raising the gas tax, increasing vehicle registration fees and instituting toll roads.

“Everything should be on the table to fix this problem,” Vos said in a recent meeting with reporters where he discussed the issue.

We agree.

Among the proposals being discussed to fund the roads are an increase in the gas tax, which has been one of the main funding mechanisms for road work in Wisconsin for decades.

In light of the increased use of gas-electric hybrids and fully electric vehicles, we also would be in favor of a surcharge for hybrids and electrics. This is about paying for roads, and the road being worn down makes no distinction between fully gas-powered, partially gas-powered or electrically charged.

Also being considered are $1 increases in the annual vehicle registration and driver’s license fees. We think the fee hike in vehicle registration could go even higher than that; if you can afford a car, you can afford to see the registration fee go from $75 to $80. That could bring in more than $20 million a year instead of the $4.4 million projected by a one-dollar fee increase.

Speaker Vos also is a proponent of at least examining the possibility of toll roads. On this side of the state line, some of us may think of that as an Illinois thing, but such a proposal would put at least some of the cost on all users of the road, whether Wisconsin taxpayers or not.

Delaying projects is expensive and has ramifications on the economy and public safety, Vos said.

“If we care about creating jobs, we have to at least say we have to get this done,” Vos told reporters, according to The Associated Press. His “No Easy Answers” document, distributed to Republican Assembly members in advance of the next legislative session, argued that “Transportation is a bigger concern for job creators looking to locate a business than Right to Work, tax incentives or environmental regulations.”

All of these proposals take the form of a user fee: Those who drive or own vehicles are being asked to contribute more to the maintenance and improvement of the roads upon which they drive. That seems fair.

What doesn’t seem fair is addressing today’s problem by sending tomorrow’s taxpayers the bill. That’s what borrowing to pay for essential services does: It’s a credit-card purchase you expect somebody else to pay off.

Wisconsin needs to stop kicking this particular can down the road. It’s time for all of us to pay as we go.