If the government of the State of Wisconsin ever sees the light and adopts the obvious, sensible and responsible means of paying for road repair and building and other transportation needs, some of the credit should go to a Republican legislator from Delafield.
State Sen. Chris Kopenga earned that recognition last week by brilliantly making the case for increasing the gas tax to help deal with the state’s transportation funding crisis.
We should point out here that Kopenga didn’t mean to do this. He’s not a fan of the gas tax and, in fact, appears to be a bitter foe of anything spelled t-a-x.
Yet in a conference call to news organizations, including Ozaukee Press, he unintentionally revealed the beauty of the gas tax as a highway funding device by pointing out that a one-cent increase in the tax would yield $33 million a year in desperately needed transportation revenue.
Kopenga is so rigid in his anti-tax mentality that he thinks the large tax revenue number, calculated by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, is an argument against a gas-tax increase. If the senator had done the math, it might have dawned on him that it is the opposite—it is proof that a modest increase in the gas tax is an effective, easy-to-bear means for the state to meet some of its neglected transportation obligations.
Here’s the math: A Wisconsin automobile owner who might be considered typical—driving 10,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon—would pay only $5 a year as his or her contribution to the $33 million that a one-penny-a-gallon gas tax increase would raise.
The state Transportation Fund is so far in the hole as a result of the obdurate refusal of Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to consider revenue-raising remedies that it would take more than a one-penny gas tax hike to make a significant dent in the deficit, but with more than 2.5 million motor vehicles registered in the state, an increase of a few cents per gallon could put the transportation funding on much firmer footing.
As an alternative, Kopenga and State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), who joined him in the conference call and voiced a similar intolerance for a gas-tax increase, want the state to go into more debt—as much as half a billion dollars more—to replenish the Transportation Fund.
The notion that no tax increase is acceptable, regardless of how effective it would be in meeting a vital need for the people of Wisconsin, is far removed from a rational view of government responsibilities. When applied to transportation funding, it is ironic as well, because the borrowing alternative favored by anti-tax crusaders is a surefire way to inflict tax pain.
Wisconsin taxpayers are obligated to pay the interest on highway debt. That interest bill has the effect of a tax. With the half-billion more in highway debt, 25% of the highway fund would have to be spent on debt service instead of on roads. In contrast, by law 100% of gas tax revenue is spent on transportation needs.
Gas tax opposition is another manifestation of the ideology of starving government to shrink it trumping practical solutions to meeting the public’s needs.
A refreshing take on road funding by local elected officials who are more interested in serving their constituents than burnishing images as anti-tax warriors can be found in the opinion piece on this week’s Ozaukee Press op-ed page written by the directors of organizations representing the state’s counties, municipalities and towns.
Under the headline “Forget ideology and politics—just fix Wisconsin transportation,” the writers draw attention to the burden the state’s deteriorating roads are putting on communities and the physical and economic well being of their citizens.
Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb confirmed the size of that burden last week when he told the Legislature that under the governor’s borrowing plan the number of roads in poor condition would double in the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, the benefit of putting to use the perfectly accurate math that proves that a few pennies in added gas tax would raise millions to put roads in good condition remains locked away by anti-tax zealots who consider it heresy.