PRESS EDITORIAL: Who needs taxes when you can fix roads with magic?

Wisconsin’s road funding debacle seems to have morphed from a circus—the one staged by the Legislature for the past decade—to a magic show.

This transformation was made manifest by a letter to the editor written by Joe Sanfelippo and published in last week’s Ozaukee Press. Sanfelippo is an assemblyman from West Allis. He is also a magician—in his own mind at least.

In the letter, Sanfelippo proposes to perform an amazing of act of prestidigitation by taking $1 billion from the state’s general fund to pay for road maintenance “without putting a hole in the state budget.”

This is clumsy sleight of hand at best. No audience is simpleminded enough to not see through it.

Of course it would put a hole in the state budget—a hole exactly one billion dollars deep.

Sanfelippo came up with the $1 billion number because that is the amount of the annual sales tax revenue from the sale of cars and trucks and related parts and services, as if this relationship with motor vehicles somehow makes the money available for roads without impacting other state needs.

A mere billion is a minuscule drop in the bucket that would pay but a few pennies on each dollar of the bill for the state’s deferred road repair and building needs, but the assemblyman has a trick for that too. He proposes to find hundreds of millions of dollars more by passing legislation to “eliminate bloat” in the Department of Transportation. There aren’t enough mirrors or smoke in Madison to make that lame attempt at magic work.

Cheesy magic shows are the level to which the Republican majority in the Legislature has sunk as its members confront a governor who actually wants to raise money to pay to fix the state’s deteriorated highway system. Gov. Tony Evers is proposing to increase the state gas tax by 8 cents per gallon.

The gas tax is the most widely used, most efficient and fairest method of road funding found in the United States.

Yet increasing it, even moderately, was considered taboo by former Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters in the Legislature as a toxic deviation from their all-taxes-are-evil ideology. Walker and the legislators never pursued an alternative except to put off some of the much needed road work and borrow to pay for the rest, with the result that Wisconsin has not only bad roads, but so much road debt that about 25% of state transportation spending has to be used to pay interest.

Foes of the gas tax are claiming vindication for their obstinacy in a recent Marquette Poll finding that 57% of respondents disliked the tax, which motivated last week’s letter writer to declare the gas tax is “wildly unpopular.” The poll report falls short of a shocking revelation. Who likes a tax? Taxes are, by nature, unpopular. That doesn’t make them less necessary.            

Speaking of unpopularity, last fall’s gubernatorial election provided a good indication of what was unpopular with voters about the defeated candidate. Exit polls showed voters were concerned by the poor condition of state roads and disapproved of Walker’s failure to raise revenue for adequate funding.

Evers campaigned on the issue and was candid about his support of a higher gas tax.

Legislative leaders apparently didn’t get the message. They’re signalling strong opposition to the Evers’ small gas tax increase, and some are pushing road tolls as an alternative.

Aside from the oddity of the idea that drivers would rather pay tolls than a few pennies more in gas tax, tolling is an inefficient way to collect road revenue and it comes with unpleasant unintended consequences.

A study done for the Wisconsin DOT in 2016 estimated that about 25% of the money paid in tolls would have to be spent on building and operating the toll collection system. In comparison, the cost of administering the gas tax is less than 1% of the revenue collected.

The study predicted that as much as 30% of traffic would avoid toll roads and use other routes, adding car and truck traffic to local roads that may be unable to safely handle it.

In any case, tolls are just another tax. In fact, it can be said that every penny of road funding has to come from taxes in one form or another, whether they are gas taxes, tolls, vehicle fees, property taxes (for local roads) or income taxes. Even the interest charges accrued on highway bonds amount to taxes.

It is not news that the gas tax will become less productive as automotive fuel economy increases and electric vehicles become more numerous. But for now, it is the closest thing to a pure use tax available, and until a method of charging vehicle owners a road tax for miles driven is found, it has to be the workhorse for raising road revenue.

The governor’s proposed gas tax increase is modest, perhaps too much so given the daunting highway spending demands the state faces after years of neglect.

Still, it’s a start on a responsible approach to paying for the highway quality Wisconsin residents deserve—no sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors required.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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