Sen. Neal Kedzie: Focus on funding for roads, protecting state roads fund
It is often said there are two seasons in Wisconsin: winter and road construction. With more vehicles using the roads, additional maintenance is needed to keep roads in safe conditions. This winter has been hard on streets and roads, with numerous infrastructure problems in serious need of repair. Those repairs might strain a historically strained transportation fund.
Wisconsin’s transportation system is funded by vehicle registration fees, license fees, and the gas tax. Those monies are placed in a segregated account for transportation projects and programs. The previous administration raided approximately $1.4 billion from the account and used it to balance the budget and pay for nontransportation-related items. The once-protected fund was turned into a slush fund over many strong objections from lawmakers.
The effect has been financially devastating for the state and motorists. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, $1.2 billion was borrowed for transportation projects, which must be paid back, with interest. Further, vehicle registration fees were increased $20 by the previous administration to backfill the deficit it created.
Since then, ideas have been floated regarding replenishing and stabilizing the transportation fund. Ideas such as a higher gas tax, higher vehicle registration and driver’s license fees, and even toll roads. Those do not sit well with me, especially with rising gas prices and the general unpopularity of toll roads, many of which could be located in our area.
To better address the issue, Assembly Bill 704 was enacted. It uses a surplus in the transportation account to increase funding by $43 million for the state highway rehabilitation program. The funding will accelerate 11 projects, including replacing a deteriorating bridge at the state Highway 50 interchange in Lake Geneva-Elkhorn in Walworth County. By starting the projects before the current fiscal year ends, the state could take on more projects in the next fiscal year.
Protecting the transportation fund from raids is a priority. Last session, a resolution was passed that sets in motion the constitutional amendment process to protect the fund. The resolution must pass both houses of the Legislature in identical form and in two consecutive sessions, but does not require the governor’s signature. Instead, the question is then put to the voters as a statewide referendum and a simple majority vote in favor amends the state constitution.
This session, Assembly Joint Resolution 2 was introduced, which I co-sponsored. It states that money deposited in the fund cannot be used for any program not administered by the Department of Transportation. AJR 2 passed both houses, which moves it to a referendum question this November.
Transportation funding is a challenge, but these measures bring closure to a time when costly decisions were made. A quality transportation system is important to Wisconsin’s economic health and driver safety. People expect license and registration fees, and gasoline taxes to be used for transportation projects, not another slush fund. The goal is to support a safe and affordable transportation system. Protecting the programs that fund the system is vital to achieving that goal.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, represents the 11th Senate District. Contact him at Room 313 South, state Capitol, P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882; phone 608-266-2635; Sen.Kedzie@legis.Wisconsin.gov.