Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday a state task force is nearing consensus on the need to increase Wisconsin’s 32.9-cent-a-gallon tax on vehicle fuel — the strongest sign yet that Evers will propose it in his forthcoming plan for the next state budget.
Evers declined to say how much of an increase the task force is considering.
Evers also said he will return to using executive power to grant criminal pardons, a departure from the practice of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who declined to do so.
Speaking to a group at a Superior Days lobbying event, Evers also singled out humanities courses at state colleges and universities for helping students become “good citizens.” The comments come as some University of Wisconsin campuses, including UW-Superior and UW-Stevens Point, are citing budget constraints to cut academic programs in the liberal arts and humanities.
The 34-member transportation task force recently was appointed by Evers to give input on how he should propose to fund the state’s transportation network in his upcoming two-year budget plan, due Feb. 28. Its members hail from a mix of business, transportation, environmental, agricultural and local- and state-government backgrounds.
Evers told reporters Tuesday there “seems to be some consensus” from task force members on what should be in the budget.
“From what I hear, at least part of it is gas-tax increases,” Evers said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, Kristin McHugh, did not immediately answer questions about the task force deliberations, except to say it does not plan to meet again before Evers releases his budget. The group has met twice in recent weeks.
Possible ways to increase the gas tax include a one-time increase of the gas tax rate, changing the gas tax from a fixed amount per-gallon to a percentage of fuel sales, or returning to the state’s former practice of indexing the gas tax rate based on inflation.
Evers repeatedly said during the campaign that he believes roads, bridges and transit need a revenue infusion, and that he’s open to increasing the gas tax to provide one.
But a gas-tax increase is likely to be politically unpopular and to face resistance from some Republican lawmakers who oppose virtually all tax or fee increases and say the state doesn’t need more transportation funding.
Some other Republican legislators are open to finding additional revenue for transportation but don’t see a gas-tax increase as the way to do it.
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Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, signaled last week that they view the better option as being highway tolling. That would face its own political headwinds and take years to build out before it would start producing revenue for roads.
Pardons to return
Evers confirmed Tuesday he will return to the practice of granting pardons, given to the governor by the state Constitution. Wisconsin governors traditionally used the power until Walker declined to do so.
Evers said he will begin naming appointees to the state Pardon Advisory Board, which remained inactive under Walker.
But Evers said Tuesday that for now he won’t “pick out anybody” for consideration for a pardon.
“I think most people in the state understand that people need to be rehabilitated; they need that second chance. This gives people the second chance,” Evers said.
Hailing the humanities
At the Superior Days event, Evers cited the importance of UW-Superior and the University of Wisconsin System in fueling the state’s economy.
UW-Superior announced in 2017 it was suspending 25 academic programs. And UW-Stevens Point is advancing a deeply contentious proposal to eliminate six liberal arts majors, including history, in what would be the university’s largest academic shakeup since expanding in the 1970s.
Evers said state higher education institutions have a “dual mission” that includes workforce readiness.
“But by golly, I think we also want them to be good citizens. That’s where the humanities comes in,” Evers said.