Democratic governor nominee Tony Evers said Thursday that increasing gas taxes is “on the table” if he’s elected, while suggesting he might also overhaul the income tax code to make the wealthy pay more while giving lower-wage earners a break.
Evers, the state schools superintendent, also dismissed Gov. Scott Walker’s claim in a new campaign ad that, if elected, Evers would increase gas taxes by as much as a dollar. Such an increase would roughly quadruple the state gas tax, now at 32.9 cents a gallon.
“It’s ridiculous,” Evers said of the claim.
Evers spoke to reporters Thursday after giving his annual State of Education address. It was the first Evers press conference since Tuesday’s Marquette Law School poll showed him, for the first time, leading Walker in the general election, 49 percent to 44 percent.
Republicans put Evers in their sights Thursday. Walker released an ad saying Evers would increase various taxes, which Walker said could jeopardize economic growth the state has seen in recent years.
Republican state lawmakers held a press conference to warn Evers would, in the words of GOP state Sen. Tom Tiffany, “go back to the dark Doyle days,” a reference to Walker’s Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Jim Doyle.
“We can’t go back to those failed policies,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.
Evers, meanwhile, signaled openness to a range of tax changes if elected governor, while pledging no specifics.
Asked if he’s open to changing the individual income tax code, Evers responded “we’ll be looking at that.” He didn’t commit to or rule out anything but said “we have to prioritize a taxation policy so that we benefit the small-business owners and the people of Wisconsin that are hard working, that can just barely get by.”
Evers singled out the state’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, a frequent target of criticism for Democratic lawmakers, which erases most of the income tax liability for manufacturers and farmers. He also pointed to a recent United Way report that found in 2016 more than 870,000 Wisconsin families, or about 27 percent of households, earned less than what was judged necessary to pay for basic needs.
“Clearly they need a tax break, so we’re going to find a way to do that,” Evers said of those families.
On transportation funding, the issue that divided Republicans last year in crafting the current state budget, Evers said Walker wants to distract from his own failed record. Walker has resisted calls from Assembly Republicans and Democratic lawmakers who cite data, including from the state Department of Transportation, to show a revenue infusion is needed to prevent further deterioration of the state’s roads and bridges.
Gas taxes and vehicle registration fees are the main ways the state pays for roads. Evers would not say what is the maximum amount he’d consider for a gas-tax increase, reiterating that “everything is on the table, whether it’s revenue enhancements, whether it’s cutting back on other areas.”
“The bottom line is we’re going to have Republicans and Democrats work together to solve this problem,” Evers said.
Evers dismissed Walker’s claim that tax increases would be needed to fund Evers’ request to increase funding for K-12 schools by 10 percent, or nearly $1.7 billion, in the next budget. Evers also countered that taxes have gone up, via property tax hikes, in some districts under Walker because state funding for schools has been inadequate.
“That increase of 10 percent is doable within the present budget. It’s always been that way. It’s about finding priorities,” Evers said.
Evers also said he supports bringing back the state’s old economic development agency, the Department of Commerce, to succeed the public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., or WEDC, which he wants to abolish. Walker created WEDC after taking office in 2011.