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Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling during a Joint Finance Committee hearing at the State Capitol in Madison.

There was a flurry of emails to the office this past week in effect wondering what the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee are smoking.

That question could be asked about a dozen actions taken by the budget-writing committee in recent weeks, but what seemed to stun most people was the decision to jettison Gov. Tony Evers' proposed 8-cent gas tax increase to fund sorely needed road repairs and instead hike fees, including increasing the annual vehicle registration fee to $85 and more than doubling the one-time title fee.

"No plans for eight years to fix our roads and infrastructure (just go in debt by borrowing) and instead of a sustainable relatively small per gallon user tax — rich and poor will pay the same amount no matter the value or size of what they drive," wrote Steve Anderson from Eau Claire.

The State Journal's Phil Hands summed it up with his cartoon showing an elderly woman having to pay an extra 10 bucks to register her small car even if she only uses it to drive to church on Sunday, contrasting her with an Illinois tourist sporting Cubs and Bears stickers on his big SUV, happily filling it up with relatively low-tax gas after driving hundred of miles to northern Wisconsin.

Yes, it does make you wonder what they're thinking.

Presumably, the action by the Finance Committee, dominated 12-4 by the GOP, is opening the door for what's a favorite of lots of legislative Republicans — tolling.

That's one way to capture significant dollars from the state's growing number of tourists, but again — like the fees — it's really a regressive tax, even if those legislators who have pledged to never raise taxes try to pull the wool over our eyes.

The gas tax is a user tax — the more you use the highways, the more you pay. Depending on where toll stations would be placed, a worker driving a few miles to work could get hit with a hefty fee coming and going. Think of what it might cost if a Milwaukeean got a job at Racine County's Foxconn, for instance.

Let's also not forget the substantial cost of implementing a toll system — toll booths, infrastructure to accommodate electronic sensors, the need for at least some toll attendants — millions of dollars just for starters. The apparatus for collecting gas taxes is already there. There would be no additional costs for the Department of Transportation to consider.

And, yes, the gas tax itself is regressive — low-income drivers pay as much to commute as their wealthy brethren — but it's the least regressive of the alternatives. Besides, there are ways to remedy that if legislators truly wanted.

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For some reason — stubbornness, rigid ideology, special interest influence — the corps of the Republican Party would rather put the burden on Wisconsin taxpayers, denials notwithstanding.

We see it in refusing federal Medicaid funds, turning down millions for passenger rail and now failing to get out-of-staters to help ease the cost of building and fixing roads.

Yes, you do have to ask — what are they smoking?

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

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