The recommendations last week from a group assigned to figure out how to pay for Wisconsin’s roads and other transportation needs may create the same dilemma for Gov. Scott Walker as the Simpson-Bowles Commission did for President Barack Obama.
Obama created the Simpson-Bowles panel to recommend ways to help the nation reduce our staggering deficit. But once the panel issued its report, Obama showed no enthusiasm for the recommendations, leaders from both parties in Congress also did little to advance it, and now the report sits gathering dust.
Last week, the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission created in Walker’s 2011-13 budget gave its unanimous support to a list of recommendations that include raising the state gasoline tax a nickel a gallon, creating a new mileage-based registration fee for cars, raising registration fees on heavy trucks; upping the driver’s license fee by $20 (renewed every eight years), and eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of vehicles. The panel said these steps would increase the average driver’s cost $120 a year.
Walker and his Republican colleagues who control the Legislature have shown absolutely no interest in raising taxes or fees. In fact, Walker wants to use the $340 million surplus now showing on the state’s books to pay for a middle-class income tax cut he said would help save the average family about $200 a year.
The committee said in its report that Wisconsin (us) needs to invest an additional $480 million a year on top of what we’re already spending “as a minimum amount needed” to keep our roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, public transit systems, etc., in decent condition.
Walker clearly has a problem. The only thing he talks about more than lowering the tax burden on middle-class Wisconsinites is creating private-sector jobs. A reliable, well-maintained system of roads and other transportation networks is a key part of that strategy. Also, as a practical political matter, Republicans have traditionally been pretty good to road builders.
But politics aside, this is a conversation we all need to join because the cost of making improvements would hit all of our wallets, and the cost of doing nothing over time will make our roads less safe and our state a less attractive place to visit and locate a business.
The Legislature stopped indexing the state gas tax in 2006. It used to go up in line with the increase in inflation without a vote and at the time was one of the highest in the nation. With that tax flat since 2006 and people driving more fuel-efficient cars, the 31-cent per gallon tax has lost 13 percent of its purchasing power in the past seven years, the panel said.
So how do we keep up? The transportation panel laid out its list of “revenue enhancers.” Now Walker has to decide whether to champion at least some of their recommendations or follow Obama’s example with the Simpson-Bowles report.
It’s not a comfortable position for the governor.
— Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire.