Our Views: On roads, budget's tank empty

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Gazette Editorial Board
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

If Gov. Scott Walker had proposed budgets years ago such as the one he revealed last month, the Capitol today might have a reputation for compromise instead of partisan bickering.

His budget would increase spending overall by 8.3 percent, including $649 million more in state aids for K-12 schools. One of the state's most liberal office holders, State Superintendent Tony Evers, described Walker's plan as a “pro-kid budget” and “on the right trajectory.”

The budget is filled with funds for social programs, too, including more money to fight homelessness. Joseph Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, said he's “very pleased,” noting it is the “first time in 25 years there's been anything in the state budget regarding homelessness and increased resources.”

While it's refreshing to see so many officials from different agencies praising Walker's proposal, we cannot join in this Kumbaya moment, namely because Walker's plan falls woefully short in addressing the state's transportation needs.

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch visited with The Gazette Editorial Board last week to discuss Walker's 2017-19 biennial plan, and she confirmed our fears about its deficiencies.

Yes, it pays for several road projects, including improvements to I-90/39 through Rock County, but Walker's proposal balances only by borrowing $500 million. Our larger concern is the governor is not positioning the state to adequately fund road maintenance, both at the Interstate and main street levels, beyond the immediate horizon.

When we raised this concern with Kleefisch, she cited a petroleum inspection fund, which pays for cleaning up gas stations after they shut down, as being part of the answer.

“Maybe take some solace in our petroleum inspection fund, which for years has had more revenue in it than it needs,” she said.

She said some of this money, generated from a gas tax of 2 cents per gallon, is slated to go toward transportation funding.

Every little bit helps, of course, but redirecting some of this 2-cent tax is not exactly what we had in mind in terms of a long-term solution.

We don't claim to know the solution, particularly regarding the role of the gasoline tax. The emergence of hybrid electric cars and greater fuel efficiency has made this revenue source an increasingly poor indicator of drivers' road usage, and lawmakers would be wise to seek alternatives. We believe multiple options should be considered for raising revenues, but it's up to the governor to advance a big idea and help kick off a meaningful debate in the Legislature.

In his column Monday, Steven Walters of WisconsinEye noted that Walker had advanced a long-term funding plan for transportation in 2011, though the proposal was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his Act 10 initiative.

The crux of the plan was to divert a percentage of sales tax receipts to the transportation fund, steadily increasing that amount over 10 years.

Maybe this is part of the solution. Maybe it wouldn't work, but the idea is a starting point, which is what Walker's budget unfortunately lacks.


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