What Wisconsin's roads shortfall could mean for taxpayers

By Marc Wehrs, La Crosse Tribune

MADISON — The biggest question in the Statehouse is how Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans will resolve a dispute over how to pay for roads.

But often lost in the debate is what the final answer will mean for the pocketbooks of drivers and taxpayers.

Walker wants to borrow more and avoid tax increases. Assembly Republicans wants to increase the price at the pump and borrow less. Senate Republicans are looking at borrowing along with instituting toll roads.

Here is a closer look at where things stand on plugging the projected $1 billion transportation budget hole.

What’s the problem?

The state doesn’t have enough money in its transportation fund to pay for needed road work — it needs about $1 billion more. The fund is built largely on revenue from gas tax and vehicle registration fees, which have dwindled as people drive less and use more fuel efficient vehicles.

What would Walker’s proposal mean?

In his two-year budget that would take effect in July, Walker proposed delaying some projects, including an expansion of Interstate 94 east-west near Milwaukee, and keeping other projects on track, including U.S. Hwy. 18/151, Interstate 39/90, U.S. Hwy. 10/441 and State Hwy. 15. He also wants to take out $500 million in debt to fund transportation projects.

Legislative Republicans aren’t biting and instead are looking at other alternatives.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Assembly Republicans argue that taking out more debt gives taxpayers less bang for their buck because more and more money will go toward paying off what is owed each year. The portion of transportation fund revenue that goes toward debt payments grew from 7 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2017, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan research organization. Under Walker’s plan, the organization estimates it would rise to almost 24 percent by 2019.

And Assembly Republicans?

Assembly Republicans offered a sweeping plan earlier this month that appears to be dead on arrival. Some said the proposal, spearheaded by Rep. Dale Kooyenga, looked more like a policy wish list than a transportation plan. Among the ideas: Cut the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon but impose sales tax on gasoline and — over several years — transition the state to a flat income tax rate by eliminating a handful of credits.

Walker rejected fiddling with taxes at the gas pump, saying the Assembly plan would increase drivers’ tax bills by $433 million over two years. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis of the group’s income tax plan, on the other hand, found it would cut income taxes by about $80 for most filers, with millionaires benefiting the most.

The Assembly Republicans also want to charge hybrid vehicles a $30 fee and electric car owners a $125 fee to ensure they pitch in for road costs. They didn’t specify any projects to prioritize or delay.

Are they any other plans?

Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have both floated tapping the state’s general tax revenues to plug the transportation deficit. But borrowing from the all-purpose fund that helps pay for everything from health care to schools to prisons would require cuts elsewhere in the budget. Critics, including Democrats, say it would only be a temporary fix. And Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the powerful budget committee, is skeptical, too.

Democratic budget committee member Rep. Katrina Shankland has said Democrats would prefer reinstating a system where the gas tax increases with inflation.

Fitzgerald has also said the state should consider toll roads as a long-term funding solution. The Assembly Republicans are also open to tolls, which would require federal approval.

Where do things stand?

The various camps are no closer to a solution than they were four months ago. Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, the budget committee’s other co-chair, has said all options remain on the table. The biggest decisions could easily linger until the end of June.