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Editorials
The high cost of gas-tax phobia PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 15:11

Ideological obstinance to increasing the state’s gas tax will cost taxpayers dearly as interest expense mounts on growing highway debt

Tax phobia is getting expensive for Wisconsin residents.

    Tax phobia, also known at tax demonization syndrome (TDS), is a condition that afflicts elected officials, rendering them unable or unwilling to raise or add a tax, even when it would benefit the public, even when it would save taxpayers money in the long run.

    The condition is in full bloom in Madison, where it has caused paralysis in the executive and legislative branches of state government concerning the urgent need to raise money to pay for road maintenance and new road construction in Wisconsin.

    The most logical, most efficient and fairest way to do this is to increase the gas tax. But that is a no-no. Perish the thought that a member of the Republican majority in the Legislature would let a tax increase appear on his or her resume.

    The only alternative on the table is the governor’s proposal that the state borrow $1.3 billion in the next two years to pay for roads. There being no such thing as free money, this would leave taxpayers on the hook for another huge jolt of interest on top of the already heavy load of debt on highway borrowing.

    If the Legislature goes along with the borrowing plan, 23 cents of every state dollar spent on highways will go to debt service. It’s the price of tax phobia, and taxpayers are going to pay it.

    Highways should be paid for on an as-you-go basis, preferably with user fees. The gas tax functions as a user fee. It’s not perfect—electric cars, for example, don’t pay it. Perfect would be a fee based on miles driven, but until a fair and practical way to count those miles is found, the gas tax is an acceptable alternative.

    That’s why it was a key feature of the highway funding plan developed by Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. As a former Port Washington mayor and alderman and Republican member of the state Assembly, Gottlieb has experience in both the executive and legislative branches of government, but apparently has not contracted TDS.

    Gottlieb proposed raising the gas tax by about 5 cents a gallon. The average annual cost per car would be only $27, but it would raise enough revenue to eliminate the need for much of the highway borrowing the state is now facing.

    His financing plan, a comprehensive document that offered a plethora of alternatives to borrowing, also put forth the good idea of allowing the DOT to require vehicle owners to report odometer readings when they renew registrations. The purpose would be to gather information to formulate a per-mile road fee for the future, a true user fee that would be the fairest of all highway-funding means.

    The governor asked his transportation secretary to prepare the funding plan, then promptly ignored it, and it is now for all intents and purposes dead. The gas tax feature was no doubt the poison pill.

    Tax phobia is undermining federal highway financing as well. Congress has thus far refused to renew the Highway Trust Fund that expired last summer. The trust fund gets its revenue from the national gas tax. Almost all Republican members of Congress have signed a pledge not to raise taxes authored by an anti-tax lobby.

    Meanwhile, America’s roads are deteriorating at substantial cost to the economy and individual citizens. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost to Wisconsin alone of the failure to provide federal funding for road maintenance is $2 billion a year.

    You can add that to the other costs, including the looming jump in road borrowing debt service, that Wisconsin taxpayers are facing because of tax phobia.

    It’s hard to know what it would take for sufferers to get over TDS, but we offer the examples of two revered Americans in the hope it might help. One is President Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 asked Congress to raise the gas tax, which it did with strong Republican support. The other is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1904 Supreme Court opinion, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.”

    And, we will add, the price we should pay for safe, well maintained roads.


 
Public school guardians PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 06 May 2015 18:25

There are welcome signs of the people of Wisconsin rising up to defend their schools against the onslaught of state aid cuts

The handwriting is on the blackboard: The people of Wisconsin value their public schools and expect their state government to support them.

    Gov. Scott Walker apparently missed that memo. He has proposed cutting state funding for public K-12 schools by $127 million in the first year of his biennial budget.

    But the legislators who will decide whether the governor gets his way had better read and comprehend the message, because evidence is growing that taxpayers have had enough of withdrawing funds from their children’s schools, as though they were some sort of ATM for state government, to balance the state budget.

    In school districts around the state, places such as Reedsburg, Lake Mills, Dodgeville, Whitefish Bay and Wauwatosa, citizens are protesting the K-12 cuts with rallies, door-to-door campaigns, yard signs, mass letter-writing, panel discussions and websites.

    One of the most outspoken groups is in Wauwatosa, Gov. Walker’s home school district. The organization has adopted the name Support Our Schools and members wear T-shirts proclaiming “S.O.S.”  They are highly motivated in their mission to persuade legislators to reject aid reductions to public schools because the budget proposed by the governor will cost their district about $900,000, resulting in cutbacks in educational programs.

    These groups are leading the battle, but there is strong support behind them throughout the state. A Marquette University Law School poll found that 78% of Wisconsin residents oppose the K-12 cuts.

    There certainly is good reason to oppose them in Ozaukee County. One way or another, the value of the education provided by public schools here will be damaged if the state aid reduction becomes law. Port Washington-Saukville would lose $395,000 if the cuts were approved. The impact on Grafton would be about $300,000. Every district in the county woud face six-figure losses.

    These cuts follow severe aid reductions in previous state budgets, leaving districts with little or no room to tighten operations without affecting curriculums. What’s more, costs have increased since the last budget. State aid needs to be increased, certainly not decreased. With state levy limits in force, districts do not have the option of meeting the shortfall by raising local taxes.

    Walker administration officials who thought cutting K-12 funding to balance the state budget would be supported by the public appear to have underestimated the intelligence of the people of Wisconsin. Wisconsinites recognize absurd priorities when they see them, and there are plenty to see in the state budget.

    The same budget that reduces aid to public schools, for example, increases taxpayer funding for private schools. Many in the state support the idea of some public funding for charter schools, but to starve public schools to feed private schools is indefensible.

    For strange spending priorities, though, nothing tops the governor’s proposal to spend taxpayer money—something close to the $127 million he would take away from public schools—to help pay for a new professional basketball arena in Milwaukee.

    It wasn’t that long ago that there was a lot of black-slapping and high-fives in Madison over the balancing of the state budget, and then to add to the celebrations, taxes were cut. Now the state has a deficit again. And the remedy offered taxpayers is to go to that reliable ATM and withdraw some cash from public schools.        

    It’s clear the people of Wisconsin don’t want that. They put a high value on their local schools, and are willing to pay for them.

    No more dramatic affirmation of that can be found than the approval in April by voters of the Port Washington-Saukville School District of spending $49.4 million plus millions of dollars in interest for high school and elementary school building improvements. The referendum passed by a narrow margin, but it was nonetheless remarkable that a majority of the voters in effect volunteered for substantial property tax increases in the interest of better schools.

    Let’s get a new piece of chalk and write the message bigger so no legislator can miss it: The people of Wisconsin value their public schools and expect their state government to support them.



 
Inspiration in a populist uprising PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 16:21

Grafton’s riverwalk, a result of the save-the-dam crusade, shows what a motivated public can do to save waterfront aesthetics

Grafton is poised to create a riverwalk that will give the public new opportunities to derive enjoyment from the village’s fortunate place on the banks of the Milwaukee River. When the riverwalk opens in fall, every one of the 1,675 residents who voted to save the Bridge Street Dam can take some of the credit.

    Were it not for the voters who made an emphatic statement five years ago with a landslide vote, village officials would be looking for ways to mitigate the eyesore of a downtown mudflat instead of planning a new recreational amenity.

    That vote saved the 35-acre lake created by river water that backs up from the Bridge Street Dam—the body of water that has been referred to as the Grafton millpond for roughly a century. In 2010, village officials were intent on demolishing the dam because it required expensive repairs. Had that happened, the lake would be gone and the river would have been a narrow stream bordered by mudflats during much of the year.

    The riverwalk will be on the west side of the river, extending north from the Highway 60 bridge for the length of Veterans Park. It will have a launching place for canoes and kayaks, a beach, informational kiosks and spaces designed for relaxing and enjoying river views, including a so-called sitting wall.

    The save-the-dam crusade ranks as one of the more remarkable populist uprisings in recent Wisconsin history. Village officials were dead-set on getting rid of the dam and were not about to be persuaded by contrary views. A small group of citizens saw this as the serious
mistake it was. Their grass-roots protest grew by leaps and soon had managed to force a binding referendum and then to engage voters in the cause so effectively that an astonishing 75% of them voted to save the dam.

    Grafton’s riverwalk plan is significant for reasons beyond the fact that it’s a nice quality-of-life upgrade for village residents. Moving ahead with the riverwalk at a cost of just under half a million dollars is a clear sign that the village government now understands what the public’s priorities are when it comes to access to water and nature in other forms.

    While village officials justified demolishing the dam based on the high cost of restoring it, the voters said spend what it takes to save a valuable resource. Five years later, a substantial part of the cost of the riverwalk will be paid by local tax dollars, and it’s fair to assume a most of Grafton’s citizens approve of that.

    Almost half of the cost of the riverwalk will be paid by a grant from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which demonstrates both the importance of that program and why it is popular among Wisconsin taxpayers. According to opinion polls, most state residents think Gov. Walker is wrong to want to shut down the stewardship fund.

    During the lead-up to the 2010 referendum, an editorial in this space supporting the save-the-dam campaign contended that “Grafton without the Milwaukee River would be like Port Washington without Lake Michigan.” The point was that life in both communities is enhanced immeasurably by the bodies of water they embrace.

    Port Washington, to the credit of several generations of city government officials, has brought those benefits to the public with visionary public lakefront development, especially in the downtown marina protected by peninsular Rotary Park. Now, unfortunately, some backsliding may be imminent in the plan to sell public lakefront land adjacent to the marina for private business use.

    Grafton’s experience in saving public property that was key to the beauty of its downtown river should be an inspiration to the Port Washington citizens who have been frustrated in their efforts to persuade officials to back off from their plans to sell public water views.

     The Grafton save-the-dam crusade is an example of how people who care about their community’s aesthetic gifts can marshal the power to protect them.

 
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