Just Fix It Wisconsin

Franzen: Legislators need to fix the road revenue problem 12/18/2016

12/18/2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Republicans in the state Legislature already have started squabbling over what is likely to be next year’s biggest budget challenge: A road funding gap that now stands at about $1 billion over the next two years.

Gov. Scott Walker says he’ll only approve a hike in the gas tax or registration fees if other taxes are cut. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) says the problem is so dire that a gas tax or fee hike might be the only way out.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) and Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said trying to keep all road projects on schedule could mean a 28.1 cent increase in the state’s gas tax, which is now at 32.9 cents per gallon.

“We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem,” Kapenga said in a statement. “That’s where the focus needs to be, which is why I support Governor Walker’s plan, where taxes are not raised.”

Vos responded with his own statement: “While it’s laudable that Senators Kapenga and Stroebel say they’re relying on their CPA and business experience to analyze what they describe as the transportation fund’s spending problem, they’re deliberately ignoring the other side of the balance sheet in favor of politics and fear mongering.”

But this fight has started too soon. As a Republican friend told me the other day, it’s too early for Vos (or anyone else) to be drawing lines in the sand. Votes will be needed to pass any package. Starting the alley fight now doesn’t help get those votes. Wait till at least April to bring out the knives.

Meanwhile, state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb told legislators earlier this month that the share of Wisconsin highways in poor condition is on track to double over a decade, debt payments are set to rise for the next several years and state costs are poised to outpace new money for road and highway projects.

And that’s just roads. There are needs not being met in other transportation areas, such as buses, rail, airports, bicycles and pedestrian walkways.

My friend and colleague columnist Christian Schneider argued last week in Crossroads that the state “needs a stable, balanced funding source for its highways. Simply kicking the can down the road will just leave us all climbing out of a giant pothole.”

He’s right, but his and others’ answer to the challenge — a hike in the gas tax — falls short. The gas tax’s great virtue is that it’s a user fee: those who use the roads pay for them (generally speaking). And we should maintain that virtue. But as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and more hybrids enter the roadways, the gas tax can’t cover the shortfall in the reduction of gas usage. Not all the users are paying their fair share.

Legislators need to consider all the tools at their disposal, as Vos and the Transportation Development Association’s “Just Fix It” campaign have argued. Those tools include a hike in the gas tax, increasing the registration fee (perhaps with a higher fee for luxury vehicles and hybrids), a vehicle miles traveled system and toll roads if they can get federal permission, and, yes, delaying some projects.

Some legislators are undoubtedly waiting for the Trump administration to come to the rescue with its promised national infrastructure plan. And that may indeed help in the short term. But as my GOP pal and Schneider put it, that will only kick the can down the road. Wisconsin needs a long-term strategy, and it needs to start building one now.

No matter how much Walker, Stroebel and Kapenga may want to wish otherwise, there really is a looming revenue problem, and Wisconsin’s very sinkable budget is heading right at that iceberg.

Ernst-Ulrich Franzen is the Journal Sentinel’s associate editorial page editor. Email: efranzen@jrn.com; Twitter: @efranzen1