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BELTLINE VERONA ROAD

Vehicles travel along the Beltline in 2016 during construction in Madison.

The Democrats vying to unseat Gov. Scott Walker are generally in agreement that, if elected, they would put more money into Wisconsin's roads. Where they differ is exactly how they'd do that. 

"Quite frankly, our roads suck," said Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, on Wednesday in Madison.

Mitchell was one of five Democratic gubernatorial candidates to address members of DRIVE, which stands for Devote Resources, Invest for a Vibrant Economy. The group includes officials from the agriculture, manufacturing and tourism industries who want a longterm solution as the state faces a projected $1 billion transportation funding shortfall in the next biennium, and a U.S. News and World Report analysis in February rated the quality of Wisconsin’s roads the 44th worst in the country.

Several candidates illustrated their points by telling stories of the bumpy, pothole-riddled roads they have encountered as they campaign throughout the state. 

Mitchell said he wouldn't take any funding option off the table, although he said he isn't "really on board" with tolling or raising fees on heavy trucks. However, he said, a governor should not go into negotiations having ruled anything out. 

Mitchell said he would support raising the state's 32.9 cents-per-gallon gas tax by 5 cents, followed by a return to annual increases tied to inflation — a process known as indexing. He also said local governments should have more flexibility to raise taxes and fees as they see fit. 

Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn favored raising the gas tax over other options, because the burden is shared "rather equally" among drivers. Flynn said he is open to most options, but that he "will not permit any tolls in this state."

"Nothing is engraved in stone except this: we can’t let debt service keep creeping up," Flynn said. "Somebody’s got to step up."

About 20 percent of the state's transportation revenue goes toward paying interest on debt, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said the state's transportation woes stem from both revenue — the price tag on needed repairs grows every year — and spending, tied in large part to interest on borrowing obligations. 

Roys floated raising fees on high-capacity commercial vehicles, and said that while she's open to most options, she's "not a huge fan of tolling."

"I think anything is on the table, whether it's gas tax, tolling, whether it's looking at other ways to generate revenue," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. 

Evers said he would bring together a bipartisan group to determine the priority levels of roads projects throughout the state. 

"We have municipalities in the state that are taking asphalt off their roads because they don't have enough money to fix them, so we're put in the position of telling millennials, 'Move back to Wisconsin — we'll give you an opportunity to drive on gravel roads,'" Evers said.

Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, also said he would bring together a bipartisan group to discuss longterm funding ideas. 

Wachs said he is open to a variety of options, but said the state needs to "do things like re-index the gas tax, and the sooner, the better."

Walker has said he will not support any increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees without an "actual reduction in the overall tax burden in the state of Wisconsin." He has said the same of implementing tolling. 

The state's two-year budget was completed two months late, in large part due to a months-long stalemate among the Republican majority over how to pay for roads.

The final transportation budget included about $402 million in borrowing, new fees for electric and hybrid vehicles, construction delays and a repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.