Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vowed Thursday to press ahead on his plan to raise the gas tax one day after a Marquette Law School Poll showed the majority of Wisconsinites oppose the idea.
Evers’ comments, which come as the state budget season goes into full swing, illustrate the governor’s unwillingness to bend to popular opinion on one of his few budget proposals for which the Marquette poll did not show broad public support. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they do not support raising taxes for roads.
“We know we can’t borrow our way out of this problem,” Evers told reporters. “I understand the pushback against raising those taxes, but it’s one of those situations where if we don’t have the resources, we won’t be able to solve this problem.”
Evers vowed to make his case on the issue given support from constituents as well as the benefits good roads would provide for economic development. Evers made the comments after signing an executive order creating a committee to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Wisconsin’s ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.
Evers’ plan would increase the 32.9-cent-a-gallon gas tax by 8 cents, to 40.9 cents, and link future increases to inflation that would raise the tax another 1.6 cents by 2021. It also would increase fees for vehicle titles and heavy trucks. The new revenue would go to reduce borrowing for transportation and boost funding for state and local road upgrades.
The increase, however, would be at least partially offset by eliminating the minimum markup on motor fuel, a law that bans selling fuel below cost to attract customers. Repealing the “hidden tax” could save drivers as much as 14 cents per gallon, according to the governor’s office.
On Thursday, Evers said the repeal of the minimum markup is meant to offset the possible tax increases as much as possible. However, his own transportation secretary, Craig Thompson, previously told lawmakers any price drop resulting from the minimum markup repeal would be hard to predict.
Republicans in the Assembly and Senate are split on the governor’s gas tax proposal. Last week, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, said transportation could be an area of compromise with the Democratic governor.
But committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, declined to back Evers’ plan and said she prefers solutions that don’t increase taxes.
Earlier this year, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, expressed support for open road tolling as a potential transportation solution. Disagreement between the Assembly and Senate over how to fill a $1 billion transportation budget shortfall delayed the current budget by 3 months in 2017.
Vos and Fitzgerald have vowed to avoid discord on the issue this time around. Representatives for Vos and Fitzgerald didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.
‘The high road’
On Thursday, Evers defended his decision to rescind 15 board appointments made by former Gov. Scott Walker.
“I’d say we took the high road,” he said. “We’re following the lead of the people that are making these decisions in the judicial system.”
His comments come after a Wisconsin appeals court Tuesday ruled in his favor by allowing him to rescind the 15 appointments, which include Public Service Commissioner Ellen Nowak and UW System Regent Scott Beightol.
On Wednesday, Fitzgerald said Evers’ move was “a bum’s rush” and said rescinding Nowak’s appointment and stopping her from returning to work “is not the way you treat a former secretary of (the Department of Administration) and the chairwoman of the Public Service Commission.”
The ruling from the appeals court stems from an order by Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess that blocked the laws curtailing powers of Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
As part of the order, which invalidated the December extraordinary session in which the laws were passed, Niess also vacated 82 Walker appointments to state boards, councils and commissions that the state Senate confirmed during that session.
The appeals court granted GOP lawmakers’ request to temporarily suspend the order, but not before Evers’ rescinded the appointments. Evers later re-appointed 67 of the 82 Walker appointees.
At stake in the legal battle is not only the fate of 15 appointees, but whether controversial Republican laws curbing Evers’ and Kaul’s powers will stand. Fitzgerald said Wednesday the Senate would hold up confirmation of Evers’ Cabinet secretaries as it waits for the courts to resolve the issue. He added the issue was creating “a lot of strain” between Republican leaders and the governor.
Republicans on Wednesday asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to restore the 15 individuals to their positions. Responses to that request are due in court early next week.