Transportation budget needs creative funding ideas, not more debt

By Rep. Dave Considine

For weeks, the Joint Finance Committee has been deliberating and voting on the state budget, piece-by-piece. Having finished making many of the “easier” decisions, the committee has begun the heavy lifting of the bill. Among these more difficult sections is the Department of Transportation.


Transportation infrastructure is a common topic of discussion across the country, even in good financial times. In Wisconsin, this has been an especially charged discussion since the introduction of the Governor’s budget proposal in February. It’s clear that our transportation options need work everywhere, from potholes and bus overload in urban areas to accessibility issues in rural places. But as we face such a major budget deficit and no projected new revenue for the rest of this biennium, the biggest question is: how will we pay for it?


The solution put forth by the Governor, and perhaps the solution many of us immediately jump to, is bonding. Borrow the money for the projects we desperately need but can’t afford, and put off the payments until we can afford them. The problem? It won’t be those making the decisions who end up with the burden. Bonding over $1 billion in transportation funding, as Governor Walker suggests, or even “just” $1 billion, as the Joint Finance Committee may propose, likely won’t have an immediate effect on me or many of my legislative colleagues.


But when it comes time to pay back that enormous bond, it will be our children, grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren who are held responsible. They will have to bear a crushing amount of debt, coupled with interest payments that will have gone from comprising 19% of the transportation budget to over 25% - consequences of our decisions. If we allow Wisconsin to simply keep borrowing money for transportation initiatives, we will only shift our debt further onto the next generation. I do not want that for my family, and I don’t believe my colleagues do either.


So what can we do instead? There have been a number of suggestions on the table so far. For example, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb proposed a balanced approach last year that would raise the gas tax while also increasing user fees in certain areas, such as on hybrid cars. This may not be a perfect or even ideal solution, but measures like this could go a long way toward making Wisconsin’s transportation budget more sustainable. We all know that in the midst of a difficult fiscal situation, we sometimes need to choose the option we don’t necessarily like.


I have heard from many people already in the 81st District and beyond who are very concerned about the Governor’s transportation plan. With Joint Finance meeting this week to vote on the DOT budget, I encourage each and every one of them to continue making their voices heard, and I urge my colleagues on the committee to think honestly about how much more debt our state can and should take on. It’s time to start making smarter financial decisions for Wisconsin and do what’s best for future generations, not just our own.