The Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee approved a transportation budget late last week, which would inject $483 million into transportation coffers by raising vehicle registration fees and more than doubling vehicle title transfer fees, among other things.
The plan would raise $393 million in additional revenue and includes a $90 million one-time general fund transfer. The vote was 11-5 with all four Democrats on the panel voting no, preferring instead Gov. Tony Evers' proposal to raise the gas tax.
The Republican majority rejected any gas tax increase, but there was push-back on the GOP side, too, with some conservatives opposed to the amount of revenue increases. State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), a member of the JFC, joined Democrats in opposition.
State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) also opposed the plan, making it unclear whether the measure could pass the state Senate.
"Tonight is a big win for the road building special interests and a big loss for the taxpayers," Nass said. "The Joint Finance Committee package contains excessively high levels of new revenues with no accountability or reform measures."
Nass said it was possible a separate bill with "a few reforms" could surface later, but he said the governor would veto any stand-alone bill relating to taxpayer accountability at the state Department of Transportation.
"I don't support this transportation package and have serious concerns over the level of structural deficit created by the JFC version of the budget," he said. "These key factors are jeopardizing my support for the 2019-21 biennial budget."
Nass said the structural deficit is currently between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
But Senate and Assembly Republican leaders praised the JFC vote, which followed a deal brokered between GOP leaders of both chambers. Both Assembly speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the GOP agreement not only would raise the revenues needed to maintain the state's roads and highways but includes a firm commitment to separately pursue reforms at the DOT.
"Assembly Republicans finally achieved our goal of increasing revenues to fix our roads and bridges," Vos said. "The GOP agreement also lays the foundation for a long-term funding solution while instituting pro-taxpayer reforms."
Vos said members of the Assembly and Senate are working on additional reform measures to bring about more efficiency at a lower cost to taxpayers, while Fitzgerald said it was the duty of the Legislature to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly as more investments are made in infrastructure.
"In the coming days, we'll introduce reforms to make sure that hard-working Wisconsin taxpayers are protected from wasteful spending in the future," Fitzgerald said. "We need to control costs and hold the Department of Transportation accountable."
Specifically, the package would increase annual light truck and auto registration fees from $75 to $85; increase the vehicle title transfer fee by $95, from $69.50 to $164.50; and transfer $90 million in tax dollars from the general fund to the transportation fund.
The budget plan would borrow about $326 million. That's less than the $383 million Evers had proposed, and Republicans say that's the lowest level of transportation bonding in decades.
In general, Democrats say a gas tax increase would be fairer because out-of-state visitors would help pay for the roads they use while here, while registration and title fees ensure that only Wisconsin residents pay for road maintenance.
Some conservatives opposed to the amount of new revenues say the state needs to first do better with the money it already raises.
"We can build a safe, modern infrastructure through smarter spending and wholesale reform to how roads are built," said Americans For Prosperity Wisconsin state director Eric Bott prior to the JFC vote. "We should improve our roads not by burdening Wisconsinites with higher costs, but by making better use of the money we already collect."
Before the JFC vote and announced deal, 10 Republican senators urged a one-time investment in local roads using part of the state's budget surplus.
Their plan would have sent $1 million to each of the state's 72 counties, as well as provide $1,000 for every mile in every town. With 61,600 miles of town roads added to the county funds, the total would come to $133.6 million.
"We are proposing to use the surplus funds that we have generated over the last eight years as a result of the positive reforms we have made," said Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green). "We want to use this one-time money to make a difference in the one thing that all of our constituents have told us they want - to fix the roads."
The money would have been earmarked for maintenance and construction projects on roads and bridges only and could not be used to buy vehicles, plow snow, or build buildings.
The plan approved after negotiations uses $90 million in a one-time investment, as well as $66 million in ongoing transportation aids.
Meanwhile, Clean Wisconsin was angry that the JFC rejected Evers' proposal to use $10 million from the Volkswagen (VW) settlement fund for public electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
"The Joint Finance Committee squandered a great opportunity to encourage and enable EV travel in Wisconsin," said Clean Wisconsin's government relations director, Carly Michiels. "EVs are cheaper, cleaner, and better for our health than gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. They're the way forward in Wisconsin. Using $10 million from the VW settlement fund presented an opportunity to create a significant positive benefit for Wisconsinites without using any taxpayer dollars."
Michiels said Wisconsin is one of four states that submitted VW settlement plans that has not used the VW funds for EV charging stations.
"This was a wasted chance to help lay the groundwork for an easy and fast network of EV charging stations across the state," she said.
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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