3/10/19 – The Journal Times

Find a road to agreement.

That’s the challenge for new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and the GOP-controlled state Legislature.

Evers rolled out the framework for his administration with his proposed $83 billion state budget plan last month and, as expected, GOP eyes rolled over many of the proposals and some Republicans bristled.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Evers’ plan was a “1,000-page press release, not a budget. A lot of the items that the governor ticked off, I think are kind of the best hits of the Democrat Party.”

No, we didn’t expect a kumbaya moment over the budget, but sooner or later — and we hope it’s sooner — we expect Democrats and Republicans to come together to do their jobs and give the state a new two-year budget that both can live with.

Where to start … where to start? We suggest it would be with the state’s transportation budget. Gov. Evers has proposed an 8-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gas tax to 41 cents per gallon. He would couple that with the elimination of the state’s minimum markup law — for gasoline only — which requires retailers to mark up the price of gas 9.18 percent above the average wholesale price, or about 14 cents a gallon.

That offset, Evers said, would make it possible for state motorists to pay less at the pump than they do now.

We think that’s a great idea and a good place to start budget compromises, because Evers actually took that proposal from Assembly Republicans, who floated a similar plan in 2017. What better place to start the budget ball rolling than with a plan advanced by the opposing party?

The Assembly GOP plan unfortunately went nowhere in the face of opposition by then-Gov. Scott Walker, who broke out in hives anytime a tax increase of any sort was mentioned.

Walker preferred instead to increase state borrowing to fund state roads and kick the day of reckoning down the road. Today that heightened use of borrowing means that 21 cents of every dollar the state allocates for roads goes to pay off debt and not to build roads, buy asphalt and concrete, or pay construction companies.

Evers’ plan would raise $485 million for Wisconsin’s transportation needs over the next two years and part of that, according to new state Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, a former Democratic legislator from Kenosha, would be used to reduce that debt level and to boost road aids to local municipalities.

Evers has also proposed returning to indexing the gas tax for inflation — a device that we fought bitterly against for years until the Legislature finally dropped it in 2005. We still oppose it because it gives legislators cover from voting for a tax increase because it can come automatically. If our roads need more funding — and they do — then legislators have to take the hard vote that raises those taxes or find the money elsewhere.

The state budget battle will heat up considerably in the weeks and months ahead, but a good place to find agreement and start that conversation is with Wisconsin’s transportation needs, where there are already some shared ideas between Democrats and Republicans.