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Campaigns for, against gas-tax hike putting pressure on state lawmakers

Grass grows in a pothole on Monday in the 1000 block of North Jackson Street in Milwaukee. Wisconsin lawmakers are hearing from both sides of the debate over how to pay for roads. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Grass grows in a pothole on Monday in the 1000 block of North Jackson Street in Milwaukee. Wisconsin lawmakers are hearing from both sides of the debate over how to pay for roads. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Anti-tax crusaders are in a game of tug-of-war with proponents of raising more money for transportation projects, and state government is the rope.

Wisconsin lawmakers are hearing from ever more local officials who are calling for increases to state gas taxes and other revenue sources to pay for roads projects. At the same time, they are feeling pressure from the opposite direction from groups that are dead set against the tax hikes that would most likely be needed to meet those demands.

The push from counties, cities, towns and villages is connected to a campaign called “Just Fix It.” Organized by the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, the campaign is intended to encourage the state Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker to put more money toward transportation projects. Much of the emphasis so far has been on calls to raise either the state’s gas tax or vehicle-registration fees, or a combination of the two.

By early last week, the organizers of the “Just Fix It” campaign were counting 230 local governments that had adopted resolutions urging Walker and the Legislature to “agree upon a sustainable solution” to bolster municipal transportation budgets. According to the sample resolution found on the Transportation Development Association’s website, lawmakers and the governor should adopt “a responsible level of bonding and (adjust) our user fees to adequately and sustainably fund Wisconsin’s transportation system.”

Likewise trying to rally support around their cause, campaign organizers traveled the state earlier this year holding events where local officials and business owners could testify publicly about the benefits of a strong transportation system.

resolution map

Not everyone is of a like mind, though. Representatives of the Wisconsin office of Americans for Prosperity — a right-leaning group affiliated with a national organization that is largely financed by the billionaire Koch brothers — are running a campaign of their own to dissuade lawmakers from raising taxes for transportation work.

Eric Bott, state director for the organization, said his office is running a grassroots campaign that has volunteers talking to residents about the disadvantages of higher taxes.

“We’re also working through our eight field offices around the state to get regular citizens to call their (lawmakers),” urging them to keep the gas tax at its current rate, Bott said.

The idea of raising the gas tax is “incredibly unpopular,” he said, which makes Americans for Prosperity’s job relatively easy.

Many local officials see things differently, though. They say their constituents are clamoring for repairs to frequently traveled roads.

Joseph Hurtgen, chairman of the Baldwin Town Board, which recently passed its own version of the Just Fix It resolution, said the community’s roads are in desperate need of attention.

“We don’t have no money to fix roads,” he said in an interview. “And they’re in bad shape. They’re falling apart.”

Bott, responding to the criticism that the state doesn’t provide enough money for road repairs, said it would be irresponsible to enact a gas-tax increase before the state even sees savings from the repeal of its current prevailing-wage laws.

In a change approved last year, lawmakers voted to eliminate prevailing-wage requirements for most local projects starting Jan. 1. Even so, projects commissioned by the state or local projects that receive federal money — including many local road projects — will continue to fall under prevailing wages set by the federal Davis-Bacon Act.

But for those local projects that don’t receive federal money, Bott said he expects the savings from the elimination of prevailing wages to be substantial.

Walker has doubled-down in recent months on his pledge to not approve a tax increase, including any that would be used for transportation projects, that was not offset by a decrease elsewhere in the budget.

He has also suggested that transportation spending should be shifted away from large expansion projects in southeast Wisconsin and put toward the maintenance of local roads and bridges. At the same time, he has also sent a letter to federal officials indicating the state would pursue a proposal to add lanes to Interstate 94 in Milwaukee County.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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