The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) has outlined a smorgasbord of ideas to fund roads and mass transit for the next biennium but it may be destined for a head-on collision with Republican talk of cutting taxes.
The people who build roads love the wish list. Government watchdog groups are wary, especially fearing the suggestion that general-fund revenues – rather than transportation fees and taxes – be used to finance mass transit.
Among the ideas from DOT are gasoline-tax increases and a new-vehicle fee bringing in $751.4 million over two years, transferring $573.6 million from the general fund, and raising another $805 million from bonding. Absent from the list are increases in registration fees and extending the sales tax to fuel sales for vehicles. Gov. Scott Walker had floated the sales-tax idea briefly earlier in the year.
Walker will outline his transportation funding and spending plan when he submits his 2015-2017 biennial budget to the Legislature in mid-winter.
The financial background is mixed. In early November, it was projected that the state would end the current fiscal year with a $132-million deficit. Some will remember the governor turned down more than $250 million in federal money for the Obamacare program
Walker administration officials correctly say the $132 million won’t be any problem. Other administrations have solved projected deficits by curbing spending or by delaying payments into the next fiscal year.
Then there were new tax-collection numbers released before Thanksgiving by the Department of Revenue.
General-fund tax revenues were down 3.7 percent from the previous October and 2.8 percent year to year. Individual tax collections were down 11.6 percent from the previous October and 7.7 percent from the previous year.
Corporate taxes collected were up 37.7 percent for the month and 2.3 percent year to year.
Are lower individual income taxes good or bad? It could be good if you think it’s great when less money is sent to state government. Coupled with the political promises not to raise taxes, it means there will be less government spending. Or will it merely mean higher property taxes?
Much of state spending goes to help finance schools and local government. Those who promise lower property taxes are counting on additional help from the state. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who heads the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), is seeking a $700 million increase in state assistance in the next biennium.
He got a cool response from two Republican leaders: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Marinette’s Rep. John Nygren, who is the Assembly co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
“We have a responsibility to provide a great education to every child in Wisconsin and protect the interest of the taxpayer,” they said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that DPI doesn’t put more emphasis on the latter.”
That sort of cheap shot didn’t surface in reaction to the DOT ideas, although Republican State Sen. Alberta Darling of Rivers Hills expressed doubts about another $805 million in bonding for new roads. As a group, Republican legislators were largely mute on the new transportation-funding ideas.
Craig Thompson, who heads the 43-year-old non-profit Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he believed Gov. Walker was involved in the development of the ideas. The non-partisan association is an advocacy group for a strong transportation infrastructure in the state.
Todd Barry, who heads the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, also a non-partisan non-profit group, said the idea of using general-fund tax revenue to help pay for transportation seems to conflict with the idea that transportation spending and revenues should stand alone.
Voters last month approved a constitutional amendment requiring that transportation revenues cannot be used to pay for other state government programs.
Known as the “dean” of the State Capitol correspondents, Matt Pommer covered government in Madison for 36 years. His column is provided by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.