Voters on Tuesday can fix one of the issues that vex them about how politicians view revenue as a pool of money to use at their discretion.
A referendum limiting that discretion to its designated, goal-given, purpose is on the Nov. 4 ballot amending the state constitution to define the state Department of Transportation authority and limit the use of transportation designated revenue to its use only.
The transportation fund revenue in the 2013-15 biennial budget is $7.024 billion. Sources are: fuel taxes and fees, $3.86 billion, 54.6%; federal funds, $1.68 billion, 23.7%; bond funds, $991 million, 14%; general funds, $315.6 million, 4.5%; and other funds, $226.6 million, 3.2%.
The issue is that those funds were routinely used for non-designated purposes including balancing general fund budgets.
The legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, upon voter approval, will end years of using those funds to offset spending for other purposes.
An analysis by the League of Women Voters:
“Monies from the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees and certain other air and rail taxes and fees are deposited into the Transportation Fund. Vote ‘yes’ states that ‘This amendment…is just common sense… The gas tax and vehicle registration fees we all pay were always intended to fund the upkeep of the transportation system.’
“A ‘no’ vote would mean that the governor and legislature could transfer monies from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund (which is used to finance most state services) as they have sometimes done in the past. Estimates of past transfers between the two funds vary.”
The Wisconsin Council of Children and Families states over the past 12 years (Doyle and Walker, Democrats and Republicans) transferred in excess of $300 million from the General Fund into the Transportation Fund than they have taken out. The Transportation Development Association states in the last decade about $1.4 billion has been diverted from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund.
The DOT is projecting a $680 million shortfall in its 2015-17 budget. A bipartisan state transportation commission reported last year to maintain current service, traffic flow and road condition levels under the existing funding system, the state will be short $15.3 billion over the next decade.
Alternate plans to increase revenue to meet the projected needs of the DOT to finance new projects and repair or replace deteriorating roads, bridges and other modes of transportation were proposed.
New sources for transportation funding proposed by the commission were a sales tax and tolls on major highways. Other options were: increase the gas tax 5 cents; increase annual registration fees by 73% and the 8-year driver’s license fee $20 to $54.
The gas tax amounts to about a billion dollars a year. The state’s gas tax is the 14th highest in the nation at about 33 cents a gallon and has been in place since 2006.
More efficient vehicles are reducing state gas tax revenue, the largest source of DOT funding. Tax on a gallon of gasoline, including the federal tax, is 51.3 cents.
The National Highway Trust Fund is expected to run short on money later this year, and the U.S. DOT could scale back payments to states, which could add to the state’s $680 million transportation funding shortfall.
More than $1.8 billion was transferred from state funds in fiscal budgets from 2003-2011. The funds and amounts transferred were: transportation, $1.327 billion; forestry/conservation, $54.6 million; petroleum/inspection, $119.9 million; public benefits, $102.6 million (none 2007-2011); recycling, $113 million; environmental management, $20.25 million;
Universal service fund/library aid & service contracts, $57.2 million; WHDEA-dividends for Wisconsin, $16 million; nonpoint account of environmental fund, $33.4 million.
The most egregious raid was in 2007 when $200 million from the medical malpractice fund was used to help balance the fiscal budget.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 the state must repay that money because “doctors had a constitutionally protected ownership stake in the state fund used to compensate…harmed by medical malpractice.”
Dave Hoffmann, a family practice physician who sued the state, said, “It was not money to balance the budget. It’s not a piggy bank. This money was there for a purpose.”
Tom and Fred, two regular End Stool voices, are polar opposites on political views, but both are firmly in favor of the referendum, agreeing that investing in transportation is also an investment in jobs.
This column shares that view.
Preventing politicians from raiding the transportation fund is a start to government fiscal responsibility.
Spending more than income is as perilous to government as to you and me.
Politicians too often view spending and revenue differently – making decisions they would not do with their money. They have the discretion to increase taxes and fees, while we do not have those options.
A balanced budget amendment is a means to close the political piggy bank. It does not need many words either: “Expenditures from any fund shall not exceed the estimated revenue and that fund is dedicated to its original purpose.”
There should not be any projected “short falls,” the double speak politicians use instead of deficit when spending exceeds revenue.