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How the state budget debate boils down

Wisconsin isn’t getting its state budget done on time.

That’s largely because Gov. Scott Walker and the state Senate disagree with the Assembly on how to pay for transportation projects.

Or more precisely, they differ on whether to pay now for what they spend, rather than push more of that cost into the future.

The Republican-run Assembly, led by Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wants to pay for maintaining and building good roads, bridges and other transportation projects with real money.

The GOP-led Senate, led by Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, wants to whip out the state’s credit card again, increasing the Republican governor’s already excessive $500 million in borrowing for roads to $850 million over the next two years.

We’re rooting for the Assembly to prevail in its push for fiscal responsibility and a strong transportation system — even if that requires a modest increase in the gas tax or higher fees on heavy trucks.

We also urge both sides in the state budget debate to seek permission from the federal government for open-road tolling on the interstate highways in Wisconsin. Leaders in both houses and Gov. Walker are close to agreeing on the need for toll roads, which would bring in more revenue from Illinois tourists and over-the-road trucks, not just Wisconsin motorists.

Illinois and many other states have toll roads, so most travelers would hardly notice tolls here.

It’s only fair for drivers to pay for the roads they use. Wisconsin hasn’t increased its gas tax or registration fee in a decade or more. Instead, state leaders have gone on a borrowing binge to get by, while delaying important projects.

If top lawmakers and the governor don’t agree on a state budget by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year, state government won’t shut down. Spending will continue at current levels.

Still, Vos and his budget committee leader, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, are right to force the issue of fiscal responsibility and the importance of good roads to Wisconsin’s economy.

“We’ve had the same discussion multiple budgets in a row now, and I think our position is right now we’re going to stop having this reliance on bonding,” Nygren said last week. “We need to come up with a solution to pay our bills rather than continue to borrow on our kids’ futures.”

He’s right.

Gov. Walker says $500 million in borrowing would be the lowest amount for transportation since the 2001-2003 budget. But that’s only because borrowing for roads soared under Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who took office in 2003. And now Walker has borrowed more for roads during his first six years than Doyle did during his first six years.

That can’t continue.

Walker notes that Doyle raided the transportation fund to pay for schools. But all of that money — and then some — has been paid back from the state’s general fund to the transportation fund.

Gov. Walker has refused to raise fees on motorists to keep pace with inflation. And that decision has led to Wisconsin roads being ranked as some of the worst in the nation.

The Assembly should continue to apply the brakes to irresponsible debt.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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