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State Journal Editorial: State Senate can’t have it both ways in budget standoff 7/16/2017

7/16/2017, Wisconsin State Journal – The borrow-and-spend state Senate is making a weak argument against the fiscally conservative Assembly in the ongoing state budget debate over transportation needs.

Republicans who control the Senate say they won’t raise any kind of tax or fee to cover the expense of higher spending they are demanding for roads. Instead, their latest proposal to keep important highway projects on track is to borrow more than $700 million, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.

That’s down from the Senate’s original proposal to borrow $850 million over the next two years. But it’s still excessive and irresponsible, given that 20 cents of every dollar the state raises for roads is being eaten up by debt payments. Moreover, that percentage has grown from 7 percent in 2000, and it will reach 24 percent by 2019 under Gov. Scott Walker’s original plan to borrow $500 million for roads, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

If the GOP Senate’s bottom line is that the state shouldn’t bring in additional revenue for roads and other transportation needs — even though Wisconsin’s roads are the worst in the Midwest, according to a state audit, and nearly the worst in the nation — then you’d think senators would be willing to hold the line on spending.

But the GOP Senate is balking at that, too, now that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has called the Senate’s bluff.

Which is it, GOP senators? Is the state spending too much on roads? Or does it need more money to spend?

The Republican-led state Assembly understands that the state’s gas tax and vehicle registration fee haven’t been raised in a decade. And because vehicles run on less gas, motorists actually pay less in motor fuel taxes than they used to, a trend that’s only going to continue.

So a modest increase in the gas tax or registration fee — or even a fee on heavy trucks that cause the most damage to roads — is easily justified to cover the rising cost of vital construction projects.

But for political reasons, the Senate is sticking with Gov. Walker’s irresponsible position that the gas tax must remain flat — even though every other tax, including property, sales and income taxes, collect more money year after year.

Instead, Walker and the Senate want to put their higher spending for roads on the state’s credit card.

Sen. Fitzgerald said last week he’s not sure what Assembly Speaker Vos’ ultimate strategy is. But it seems clear to us: Vos and the Assembly want to pay for good roads with real money. And they’re committed to that prudent position, even if the state budget is delayed.