A state lawmaker wants to use the state's windfall from the recent Wisconsin lottery winner to go for local roads, and Gov. Tony Evers says the state needs to increase its aid to local governments for road construction, but a fact check by the MacIver Institute asserts that the state is already paying a lot for local roads.
And some local communities aren't spending any local money at all, the group asserted this week.
This past week, state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) said he was introducing legislation to direct the state's share of the recent $768.4 million lottery win by a Wisconsin resident to be dedicated directly for use in local road improvement projects.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity not only for the lucky West Allis winner, but it's also a once in a lifetime opportunity for the state," Carpenter said. "When the state collects its income taxes for this win, I want it to be directed to funding Local Road Aids. It's one of the top issues I hear from constituents the most - the shabby condition of many of our local roads."
Carpenter said the bill would put that money directly into addressing pressing needs without the need for increased taxes.
"The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that of the state tax liability that results, if the winner takes the $477 million lump sum payment, that would be a $36.5 million windfall for Wisconsin," he said. "That $36.5 million should be dedicated to local road aids. This is a tremendous opportunity for the state to be wise in using that sudden influx of money for an issue we all care about - the improvement of our local roads all around the state."
Gov. Tony Evers, too, has been pushing for more state funding for local roads, albeit he is addressing long-term funding and not just a one-time windfall.
"Local governments shouldn't have to carry the burden alone to fix roads and bridges," Evers said in a tweet earlier in April. "That's why we're increasing general transit and transportation aid to counties and local governments by 10 percent, the highest levels ever in Wisconsin history."
But the MacIver Institute, a conservative free-market think tank, says the governor is wrong to say local governments are carrying the burden alone to fix roads and bridges.
In a fact check of the governor's tweet, MacIver said the governor ignored the investment by Wisconsin taxpayers to help fund local projects.
"Local governments are generally responsible for their own local road repair needs - and they have various options like property taxes and borrowing to achieve those goals, the same options that are available for funding other priorities like local schools," MacIver stated. "But contrary to Evers' claim, the state assists local governments with billions of dollars in state aid each year."
In fact, MacIver continued, state aid intended just for roads made up half or more of all road construction spending for most types of local government.
Using numbers culled from the Department of Revenue, MacIver asserted that counties spent $205.4 million on road construction in 2017 while receiving $121.5 million in state road aids; cities spent $300.6 million on road construction while receiving $159.3 million in state road aids; villages spent $98.7 million on road construction while receiving $46.9 million in state road aids; and towns spent $110.4 million on road construction while receiving $154.4 million in state road aids.
"Some argue current levels of state transportation aid is not enough," MacIver stated. "But according to the same data, many local governments spent only state money on local transportation projects and no local money at all, despite ongoing gripes that there are widespread unmet needs."
In fact, MacIver stated, 132 out of 441 villages and 480 out of 1,252 towns actually spent less on road work than they took in from the state in road aid, which means zero local investment in roads.
"That means local officials are either failing to prioritize critical local transportation projects when the time comes to set their own budgets, or they are being dishonest about the needs that exist," MacIver stated. "Everything those villages and towns spent on road work is funded by current state aid, putting to rest Evers' claim that they would 'have to carry the burden alone' if Madison doesn't open the taxpayers' wallet."
What's more, MacIver states, transportation-specific state aid for local government is just the start.
In 2017, state government contributed billions in general aid to local government at all levels for various purposes including highways, according to DOR, MacIver stated: Counties received $1.4 billion in total state aids; cities received $887 million in total state aids; villages received $146 million in total state aids; and towns received $242 million in total state aids.
"Out of that, $859 million was in shared revenue payments to local government," MacIver stated. "That's money from the state that county, municipal, and town governments can spend how they choose. If the condition of local roads and bridges was truly dire, they could choose to use that state aid to fund those projects, as well."
In addition, MacIver asserted, local governments received $253.5 million in federal aid in 2017.
Democrats, though, have backed Evers's plan to increase transportation aids by 10 percent and to boost mass transit funding. State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said earlier this month that there is clear need for the investments outlined in Evers's budget - for both urban and rural communities.
"After eight years of putting off needed investments to improve our state's roads and find sustainable solutions for transportation funding by the majority party, Gov. Evers budget delivers sustainable solutions to our transportation needs," Goyke said.
Two critical investments are local road aids and public transit, Goyke said.
"The investment in roads will help repair what's broken, like filling potholes that are getting worse and worse," he said. "Public transit is essential to the community I represent and many others throughout our state. This budget provides a 10 percent increase in state assistance to the operation of mass transit compared to the previous budget."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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