By Paul Snyder
Drivers may as well start using horses and buggies if Milwaukee loses the $6.6 million it receives annually from a wheel tax, said Alderman Jim Bohl.
“We can just go back to dirt roads,” he said. “No one will be worried about speeding anymore.”
The city’s $20 surcharge on the state’s annual vehicle registration fee pays for road reconstruction and preventive maintenance. Milwaukee needs the tax to pay for projects, Bohl said, because the state offers no other help.
But state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, wants to take that away from Milwaukee and the three other Wisconsin governments that use a wheel tax. Nass’ new bill would require all wheel tax collections cease within 18 months and would prevent other governments from enacting a wheel tax.
“I think what local governments and the state has to do is cut back and stop living beyond their means,” Nass said. “If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. The public’s extremely frustrated with higher taxes.”
Even local government leaders who do not have a wheel tax are blasting the idea.
“If these were other times and there were other revenue sources, this wouldn’t even be a discussion,” said David Duax, vice president of the Eau Claire City Council. “But the state shared revenue is down, it looks like it’s going to be cut further, and it gets to a point of asking, ‘What, exactly, are we going to do?’”
Eau Claire’s 2010 city budget includes a proposed $10 wheel tax to pay for transportation projects. The City Council is expected to vote on the budget Thursday. Duax said he does not expect the wheel tax to be approved, but cities should have the right to consider it.
Milwaukee, Mayville, Beloit and St. Croix County are the only Wisconsin governments with a wheel tax. Each spends the money from the fee on local road construction projects.
Wisconsin does not offer other taxing alternatives for transportation projects, so governments should have access to whatever tools they can get, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.
“It’s a bad idea,” Thompson said of Nass’ bill. “We have just about the most narrow revenue base in the country for transportation projects, and to make it narrower is absolutely the wrong direction.”
State lawmakers are not considering offering any other sources — such as tolls or a gas tax — that would widen the revenue base, said state Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources.
“You have to give local governments some credit,” Holperin said. “If they need it, they enact it. If they don’t need it, they can repeal it or not put it in.”
But just as state-generated transportation money is spent on budget items other than transportation, local governments cannot be trusted to appropriately use the wheel tax money, Nass said.
“If you’re going to put a wheel tax in, then you should use it to offset the local tax burden,” he said. “Every penny should be used to reduce the budget, not buy new trucks or equipment.”
Nass can check Beloit’s books if he chooses, said Beloit City Manager Larry Arft.
“We generate $275,000 every year from the wheel tax, and it goes solely to transportation,” he said. “We’ve used it for street resurfacing, and in this budget we’ve got it marked for road patching and repairs. It’s very transparent, and it has been for well over a decade.”
But not all Wisconsin governments considering a wheel tax have such single-minded goals.
Dane County Supervisor Kyle Richmond proposed a $15 wheel tax in the county’s 2010 budget to pay down the county’s debt and restore the reserve budget. The idea faces heavy opposition.
But if the state takes away the wheel tax, state lawmakers better be ready with alternatives, Bohl said. If that’s the case, he said, he is willing to listen.
“Municipalities are starving for whatever financial help they can get,” Bohl said. “This would be a case of us finding an apple, and the state just taking that away for no good reason.”