7/20/2017, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – The game of chicken over the state budget continued Friday, but the sides have changed. Where a few days ago, it was the state Assembly vs. Scott Walker and the state Senate, now it’s the Senate vs. Walker and the Assembly. In the meantime, safe roads and responsible spending of your money for roads hang in limbo.
You might need a scorecard for this. Republicans in the state Senate, apparently more than happy to abandon their fiscal principles, want to borrow $712 million to provide enough funding to move key road projects forward. Until Thursday, the governor was with them in principle, although he only wanted to borrow $300 million.
Assembly Republicans, with Speaker Robin Vos leading the charge, have maintained they don’t want to borrow any money without a way to pay it back. Vos had proposed various revenue streams but backed off on that a couple of weeks ago in the face of Walker’s stubborn insistence on no tax hikes.
On Thursday, Walker and Assembly leaders agreed on a new plan to eliminate a proposed business tax cut to free up $200 million for roads. And they agreed on no new borrowing unless the feds come to the rescue with more aid to help pay back the debt.
Senators have declined to get on board because they really want that tax cut.
So here we sit. Republican senators who once said that borrowing more money for roads — and pushing the cost of those roads to future generations was a bad idea — now say that borrowing is the only way to pay for these projects, as the Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley reported Wednesday.
One example: In 2015, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) opposed additional borrowing and issued a statement that said, “I do not believe we should be going further into debt when we haven’t created any new sources of revenue to make the payments on this new debt.”
Today, he’s OK with the latest Senate plan to borrow $712 million, nearly half of which would be paid back from the account that funds schools and health care programs instead of the transportation fund.
Same thing with Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills): “We’re not going to kick the can down the road,” she said in 2015. Today: “It is impossible to pay for those projects with cash,” she said, referring to the Zoo Interchange and sections of I-94 west and south of Milwaukee.
Borrowing isn’t the only way. Nor is the Walker-Assembly short-term plan the best way. Legislators could raise the gas tax and registration fees or impose a fee on heavy-duty users such as big trucks and farm equipment. They could consider tolling, a vehicle miles traveled system or some other innovative means to provide long-term, sustainable funding.
But because the short-sighted Walker refuses to take a longer look down the road, too many legislators blindly follow along. (As do normally reliable conservatives such as Christian Schneider, who recently argued in favor of adding to the state’s credit card because it’s unrealistic to suggest a solution that Walker won’t like.)
Roads and bridges in Wisconsin are considered among the worst in the country (the federal Transportation Department ranks us 47th); we need new lanes, we need transit. The revenue system (based on the gas tax) can’t provide the necessary funds and is already falling behind. This will get worse as vehicles become more fuel efficient.
On Wednesday, I was on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” talking about this. Every caller said he or she would be willing to pay more for gasoline right now to make sure roads are adequately funded.
Not a scientific survey, I grant you, but a recent poll by Public Opinion Strategies found the same thing: “A supermajority of voters support raising new revenue versus project delays or funding projects by borrowing additional money,” reported the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a group advocating for a new funding system for roads.
Walker’s commitment to not raising taxes has served him well. I sure don’t want to pay any more than I have to to get safe roads and better transportation options. But the state needs to find better ways to fund transportation, and if that includes paying a little more, I’m OK with that, as are most of those who use the roads. Holding the line on taxes won’t do the job. Neither will stop-gap measures such as Walker’s latest proposal. Wisconsin needs a long-term fix.
Ernst-Ulrich Franzen is the Journal Sentinel’s associate editorial page editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @efranzen1