The rigid ideology practiced by Wisconsin’s governor and legislature has exacted a high price from state taxpayers in legal expenses to defend the dubious constitutionality of laws regulating union rights, legislative districts, voter ID and clinics that perform abortions. In the latest example, taxpayers will have to pay attorney fees of $1 million or more as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of a federal court decision declaring Wisconsin’s law restricting abortion clinics unconstitutional.
The anti-tax ideology that Gov. Scott Walker clings to even in situations where it defies reason is costing Wisconsin residents in another way—in the toll levied on the state’s economy and its individual citizens by the failure to fund road maintenance and repair.
The delay of necessary road work is impacting the people of Wisconsin with vehicle accidents, injuries, repairs and the frustration and financial cost imposed by highway and street congestion. And the outlook is for more of the same—only worse.
There is no plan to address the highway funding shortfall, except the governor’s proposal to borrow an additional $850 million as a partial catch-up. Legislators of both parties oppose the idea because the state is already so deep in highway debt that more than 20% of the transportation fund is being spent per year on debt service.
Meanwhile the obvious, effective, fiscally responsible and easy solution to the problem remains barricaded by the governor’s opposition and veto power: raising the gas tax.
Wisconsin’s fuel tax has not changed in more than a decade. It has not been indexed for inflation since 2006, meaning that it has been decreasing in real terms every year. The improved fuel efficiency of vehicles has further diminished gas tax collections.
Aside from the governor, it is hard to find much opposition to a fuel-tax solution to the state’s road problems. The transportation secretary the governor appointed, Mark Gottlieb (a former mayor of Port Washington), has recommended a gas tax increase; legislators, business leaders and economists support it. It would not be surprising to find that a large percentage of the drivers who would have to pay it favor a modest gas tax increase to alleviate some of the frustrations they face on the state’s roads.
A 5-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase would go a long way toward getting deferred maintenance and construction projects moving faster. An analysis by former UWM economics and business professors shows that a 10-cent increase would balance the transportation budget.
The governor refuses to consider this revenue source because it is spelled t-a-x, even though it is a tax in name only. It is really a highway user fee.
When it comes to road funding, anti-tax purity is an indulgence Wisconsin can’t afford. The state is failing to keep pace with other midwestern states in economic growth—growth that requires a smooth-running, up-to-date transportation infrastructure.
With job creation also lagging behind neighboring states, Wisconsin is missing out on the auxiliary benefit of investment in transportation infrastructure—the type of economic stimulus economists consider most effective. Road projects accomplish needed work that benefits the public while generating good paying jobs and employer profits.
Much has been made of the major freeway and highway widening projects that have been delayed by the funding shortfall. Transportation spending is heavily skewed toward this new construction in Wisconsin, and critics have said, with justification in some cases, that these projects are too grandiose or altogether unnecessary.
The impact of lagging highway work, however, is felt most by drivers on local roads, which carry more than 40% of the state’s highway traffic but receive only 30% of state road funding. Municipalities need state aid to keep their streets, highways and roads in safe driving condition; Wisconsin is failing to meet that responsibility.
In explaining his unyielding position on taxes, Gov. Walker asserts that all taxes are burdens on citizens. Some certainly are. But rather than imposing a burden, a reasonable fuel tax increase would relieve burdens, the burden of the cost of excessive debt and the burden of traveling on inefficient, uncomfortable and, in many cases, dangerous roads.