Control of the purse strings is at the heart of a growing debate over a road building association’s push for a state constitutional amendment that would prevent raids on the transportation budget.
In the past seven years, Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration has shifted about $1.3 billion from the transportation budget to stabilize other budgets, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. Those moves have shaken taxpayers’ faith that gas taxes and vehicle registration fees are used to build and repair the state’s 12,000 miles of highways and freeways, he said.
“I think we would have a much better conversation about the need if there was public trust,” Thompson said.
To that end, TDA of Wisconsin on Monday formally launched a push for an amendment that involves county level advisory referendums during fall elections.
But Chris Kliesmet, president of Citizens for Responsible Government, questions whether the issue rises to a constitutional level.
“An amendment somehow enshrines tax money,” he said. “The concept of dedicated funding has been raped over time, but I’m not sure you go the route of a constitutional amendment to prevent it.”
State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources, said he does not know if he would support an amendment constitutionally segregating transportation money.
“I think it’s sufficient for the Legislature to have control over it,” he said. “Funding priorities come and go, and we need the flexibility to provide money where itís needed. Emergencies happen.”
Holperin said two bills were introduced last session to keep the transportation budget constitutionally segregated, but neither received a vote.
“I think it shows the Legislature right now prefers that it be statutorily segregated,” he said.
Thompson predicted as many as 25 transportation-related associations would join the cause. If an amendment passes, he said, the restored public trust likely would make it easier to push for fee and tax increase proposals if people know the money would stay in the transportation budget.
Thompson said Midwestern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio have in their constitutions measures to protect dedicated revenue.
The state’s segregated transportation budget is made up of federal and state money and bonds.
Fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees are the primary revenue source from the state. The state gas tax, the largest single source, makes up about 57 percent of the revenue.
Consumers now pay about 33 cents a gallon in state gas taxes, according to the state Department of Transportation. A vehicle registration fee is $75.
Kevin Traas of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association said his group supports an effort for an amendment because past legislation was unsuccessful.
“We need to protect that fund,” he said.
Thompson said transportation groups will ask county boards to hold advisory referendums in the fall asking voters if they support a constitutional amendment.
The votes would provide a barometer of how voters feel about an amendment, Traas said. If enough referendums support the move, Thompson said, the Legislature might follow suit.
The Legislature would need to approve an amendment in two consecutive sessions to revise the state constitution.
The Wisconsin Counties Association board voted Friday to let the agency supply information about the issue to interested counties and advise them on how to hold advisory referendums.
But those pushing for the amendment need to consider that constitutional changes generally are reserved for weighty matters such as the right to vote and freedom of speech, Kliesmet said.
“It seems like a solution,” he said, “but I’d have to think long and hard before I’d do that.”