Rep. John Nygren says he’s “not going to be a hypocrite” on raising revenue to fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads.
Unfortunately, Sen. Alberta Darling is making no such commitment to a consistent or responsible position.
The two Republican lawmakers lead the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which is working on a two-year state budget. In his budget request, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed an 8-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for better roads. Evers also would tie the gas tax to inflation, and increase fees for heavy trucks.
Nobody likes tax hikes. But the gas tax is really just a user fee. If you use Wisconsin roads, you pay a gas tax to help maintain them, which is fair.
In this week's political podcast, Milfred and Hands dissect the spring election, including conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn's unexpected if narrow vote advantage for high court, and Madison Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes-Conway's huge victory over Paul Soglin.
Yet for eight years, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker refused to increase transportation fees. And as a result, state roads badly deteriorated, projects were delayed, and state debt for roads soared.
The state’s 32.9-cent-per-gallon gas tax has been flat since 2006, so the state hasn’t had enough revenue to properly maintain its roads. In fact, motorists have been paying less in gas tax as their vehicles become more fuel efficient.
Evers wants to lead the state’s transportation system out of the ditch. So does Nygren, R-Marinette, and many of his Assembly Republican colleagues. Nygren last week talked about finding “common ground” with the governor and other Democrats on the issue.
“You know the Assembly has been in favor of funding solutions for transportation,” Nygren said.
That’s great. But Republicans who run the Senate have swerved all over the map on the question. They were against excessive borrowing before they wanted to borrow hundreds of millions more. They have claimed the problem is wasteful spending, only to favor more spending so projects in their districts can proceed.
“I’m not going to go there right now,” Darling, R-River Falls, said when asked about Senate support for more road revenue. “I’d rather find solutions that don’t increase the burden on our taxpayers.”
We’ve had eight years of that strategy, which is to borrow and spend. It’s an unsustainable and irresponsible practice that can’t continue. Wisconsin was spending 11.5 percent of its transportation revenue on debt payments before Gov. Walker took office in 2011. Eight years later, the state is spending 21 percent of its transportation dollars on debt payments.
So even if the state keeps collecting the same amount of revenue for roads, it won’t go as far because more gets siphoned away.
A bipartisan solution is needed, and it appears Evers, Nygren and others are close to finding one. The GOP-run Senate should help, rather than hinder, that effort.