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Konopacki 4/15/2019

During his first three-plus months in office, Gov. Tony Evers deserves high marks for laying out plans to right the ship that former Gov. Scott Walker and the mischief-making right-wingers in the Legislature ran onto the shoals.

His proposed 2019-21 budget seeks to restore education cuts, put scientists back in the mix when making environmental decisions, repeal the labor-killing right-to-work law, end voting restrictions, and expand Medicaid, an action that should have been taken eight years ago. All of it, unfortunately, stands little chance with this Legislature run by a couple of ideologues — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — who worry more about their political power than the fortunes of the state. But Evers is giving it a shot.

Plus, he proposes to finally do something about the state's sorry transportation system, an embarrassment that Walker and his fellow Republicans wouldn't touch. Their dereliction of duty has saddled the state with roads and highways now proclaimed among the worst in the country. Where once Wisconsin was a model of good roads and transportation infrastructure, it has become an example of neglect.

Evers has taken the bull by the horns and proposed in his biennial budget to add 8 cents a gallon to the state's gas tax. That still isn't enough to restore local transportation aid and to bring all state roads and bridges up to snuff, but at least it's a start, and it will provide some relief to cash-strapped local governments to fix their roads.

Where he gets it wrong, though, is his proposal to do a quid pro quo. In return for the 8-cent hike in the state tax, he proposes to repeal the application of the state's 80-year-old Unfair Sales Act — popularly called the minimum markup law — to gasoline sales, to supposedly help offset the 8-cent tax increase.

In so doing, Evers becomes the second Democratic Wisconsin governor to fall for the big business and "free market" propaganda that the law artificially inflates the cost to consumers. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle fell for it, too. Some "experts" — who work for every conservative business group in the state, from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty to the MacIver Foundation — claim that Wisconsin consumers actually pay up to 14 cents more per gallon because of the law.

What absolute nonsense. Anyone who travels by car knows full well that gas prices are seldom lower in states without minimum markup laws. The price differentials are more a function of the gasoline taxes the state collects and distances from refineries than they are of a law that helps protect small business folks from national predators who used their economic clout to drive little competitors out of business, prompting the Legislature to pass the law in the first place.

American economic history is full of examples of what happens to the little guy in these scenarios. Whether it was John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil that commandeered oil markets or the Walmarts and other big box stores that can use gas pumps as loss leaders, it raises the question: Why would we want to make it easier for these already noncompetitive conglomerates to force the mom-and-pop operations out of business?

Unfair sales acts like Wisconsin's help protect consumers in the long run. Without a minimum markup law, it is next to impossible for small merchants to compete on prices. The big guys can afford to take losses until their little competitors cry "uncle." Then, guess what — the conglomerates can charge whatever they want, and frequently do.

Forbidding businesses from selling gasoline for less than they pay for it at least provides some help for the little guy to survive in an economy that already directs most of the wealth to the big guys. How many tax breaks and government subsidies does big business need?

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Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, one of the legislative crusaders against the minimum markup law, complains that the law still exists because legislators are convinced by "vocal special interests" that repeal will put them out of business. This from a legislator who has spent her career in government doing the bidding of every big business "special interest" that sent her campaign donations.

Evers needs to understand that repeal of any element of the minimum markup law isn't good for many small family businesses that still exist in Wisconsin, but awfully good for those who want to put them out of business. He shouldn't trade that protection away for a small gas tax increase that should have been passed long ago.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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