Just Fix It Wisconsin

Janesville Gazette Editorial: News flash – Fixing roads costs money 1/3/2017

1/3/2017, Janesville Gazette – This could be the year of the wheel tax.

Janesville and Beloit have had it for years. The Milton City Council in November approved a $30 wheel tax, and now the town of Beloit is considering joining the party.

Neighboring municipalities are trying to gauge taxpayer tolerance for a new tax, and the relative lack of controversy is a sign taxpayers are willing to put up with it.

Thank the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker for helping push into the mainstream the wheel tax and other user fees, such as road tolls, previously considered unthinkable. Municipalities have been hamstrung by state-imposed levy limits, which many taxpayers would be celebrating except that they realize expenses continue to rise.

Walker’s near-dogmatic opposition to increasing revenues makes about as much sense as a policy prohibiting the earth’s gravitational pull. What goes up must come down. In the world of government, if revenues fail to keep pace with expenses, potholes, broken equipment and dilapidated parks are the result.

At both state and local levels, an anti-revenue mindset could prove especially disastrous for road maintenance.

Walker has said he won’t accept higher gas taxes or vehicle registration fees without corresponding cuts in the state budget. It’s possible Walker is waiting for President-elect Trump to make good on his promise to spend billions of dollars on states’ infrastructure projects, but let’s not forget federal funds are tax dollars, too. There’s no magical way to fix roads without increasing revenues, either through taxes today or interest payments on debt tomorrow.

Walker’s stance has given state officials little choice but to seriously consider toll roads, which would simply shift the burden of paying for Interstate repairs to road users. Perhaps it’s time to have that discussion, but Walker and other Republicans need to stop pretending that government can properly function without revenue increases.

Some taxpayers cry foul whenever governments raise taxes, and there’s no satisfying their kind.

At the state level, Walker is guilty of advancing the myth of government as an endless pit of wasteful spending to be perpetually mined. In reality, there’s not enough waste to match the amount of revenue needed to fix and maintain the thousands of miles of state and local roads.

Sure, there’s always some waste, but turning down the office thermostat by 2 degrees and similar measures are not going to yield the billions of dollars needed to overhaul the state’s infrastructure.

The irony of Walker’s refusal to raise taxes is that it threatens to increase the long-term cost of maintaining the state’s infrastructure. A leaky roof is easy and relatively inexpensive to repair when it’s caught early, but it becomes a more expensive proposition if ignored.

The same holds true for road maintenance. At the local level, officials are considering the wheel tax as way to invest in their long-term needs.

Opponents have portrayed the wheel tax as government overreaching, but this type of tax is what happens when there’s not enough revenue to cover expenses. There simply are too many roads in disrepair and not enough revenue to fix them.