Local governments, including Dane County, increasingly resorted to imposing wheel taxes since 2011 to fund local roads, as the buying power of state funding declined, a new report found.
The report was released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
It found vehicle registration fees, also known as “wheel taxes,” were in place in 27 communities at the end of 2017 — compared to four in 2011. Wheel tax revenues in the same period nearly tripled from $7.1 million to $20.7 million.
Local governments rely on a mix of state and local revenues to fund the roads, bridges and transit for which they are responsible. State aid for local roads increased 15.5 percent from 2007 to 2017, the study found. But that failed to keep pace with the Consumer Price Index, which typically rises more slowly than road construction costs, according to the report.
Since 2011, the state also tightly restricted the ability of local governments to raise their property tax levies, the report notes.
The funding crunch appears to have affected how local governments prioritize transportation spending, the report said. Wisconsin Policy Forum said it surveyed officials from nearly 500 cities and villages for another recent report.
“Many said they had shifted their spending priorities away from street maintenance to police and fire services since the start of the 2007-09 recession,” the report said.
Dane County recently enacted a $28 vehicle registration fee as part of its 2018 budget. The fee will be paid in addition to the $75 state vehicle registration fee.
Green and Iowa counties also have adopted wheel taxes. Municipalities that have done so include, in south-central and southwest Wisconsin, the cities of Beloit, Evansville, Fort Atkinson, Janesville, Lodi, Milton, Platteville and Portage and the villages of Arena and Prairie du Sac.
Gov. Scott Walker, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said wheel taxes are “tools that (local governments) have under the law.” But Walker predicted fewer counties and municipalities will enact them in the future because the current state budget gives them a boost in state transportation aid and assistance.
“There is already a big influx of state dollars into municipalities and counties across the state,” Walker said. “That’s going to drive, if anything, a surge of road projects at the local level.
“Being able to sustain that, I think, is going to be the key going forward and what we’re going to look at as we put the next budget together.”
Transportation funding has divided statehouse Republicans in recent years — a split that largely was responsible for a 10-week delay to enact the current state budget.
Walker and his GOP legislative allies have held the line on transportation revenue, contending the state collects enough already and must be more efficient with it. Democrats and some GOP lawmakers disagree; they say more transportation revenue is needed to keep state roads and bridges from falling into disrepair.
Some Republican lawmakers have sought to require local governments to submit wheel tax proposals to a voter referendum. But that measure appears unlikely to become law in 2018.