Government spending at the federal level is fairly easy to understand.
Congress fiddles around the entire year and then passes continuing resolutions with little regard for how much tax revenue is being collected, and then it borrows the difference. That’s how we have compiled a national debt inching toward $18 trillion and unfunded liabilities that now total nearly $1 million per taxpayer, according to usdebtclock.org.
Fortunately, our state lawmakers aren’t quite so blatant in their struggle to balance the state budget, which it must do by law.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have a few tricks up their sleeves to balance the budget on paper without making spending and revenues actually line up.
One of those time-honored tricks is to “borrow” money from the state transportation fund, made up mostly by the $75 annual per-vehicle registration fee and the state gasoline tax of 30.9 cents a gallon.
There’s a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot to put a stop to this escape valve for lawmakers, and voters should check a resounding “Yes” on the ballot. This would guarantee that all the money charged to motorists stays in the transportation fund and is not diverted for other uses.
Here’s how the bait and switch works, and why it must stop. For many years under both Democratic and Republican leadership, gas tax and vehicle registration money has been used to pay other state bills, and then the Legislature borrows money for road projects. By law, the state can’t borrow money for general operations, but it can bond for capital projects such as roads and bridges. By shifting the money, it enables them to balance the budget on paper, but it costs us all more in the long run.
According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, from 2002 to 2011, this transfer from the transportation fund to the general fund has totaled more than $1.4 billion.
Ending this maneuver is long overdue. Most other states already have similar language in their constitutions, and Maryland voters also will decide on Nov. 4 whether to put similar language in their constitution.
“It puts trust back in the trust fund,” said Dan Fedderly of Boyceville, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association. “It assures the public that what they are paying for is being spent on what they think it will be spent on.”
There doesn’t appear to be much opposition to this proposal. It easily passed both houses of the Legislature in consecutive sessions with bipartisan support, an almost unheard of concept these days. Also, voters in 54 counties previously backed advisory referendums on the same question by more than 70 percent.
A bigger issue is how we can continue to have smooth roads and otherwise improve our transportation system as gas tax revenues stagnate as cars become more fuel efficient. That’s a thorny issue we can’t continue to ignore, but for now we can and should stop the raids on transportation revenues.
— From the Leader-Telegram