Keeping up with potholes is difficult enough without the Legislature passing more restrictions on road funding, and local officials are understandably perturbed over a bill that might force communities to repeal their wheel taxes.
The wheel tax is no panacea, but it does raise revenue for much-needed repairs. Milton is the latest area city to impose the tax, approving a $30 vehicle registration fee in 2016 to generate about $120,000 each year. The city then formed a 10-year plan identifying maintenance priorities.
Senate Bill 625 and its Assembly companion would upend these plans by requiring Milton and any municipality with a wheel tax or considering one to put the tax to a referendum.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to predict the outcome of such referendums. If given the authority, many voters would be all too happy to reject this tax. These voters often complain the loudest about potholes and crumbling pavement, but they don’t see it as their responsibility to pay for the fixes.
Governing by referendum gives local officials fits. There’s a big difference between holding referendums for one-time capital expenditures and referendums for ongoing expenses. Budgeting decisions are best left to elected representatives who understand the realities of day-to-day governing.
To be sure, some municipalities have rejected wheel tax measures. The town of Beloit rejected a proposal last year, and that’s perfectly fine. Maybe the town’s roads are in better shape than their neighbors (though we doubt it). The important point is that the town’s representatives were free to make that decision.
It comes as little surprise that Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater, who has also opposed efforts to raise revenues for maintaining Interstates and highways, has taken the lead in advancing the wheel tax referendum requirement.
He proposes rules for municipalities that the Legislature would never dream of imposing on itself. Imagine the chaos on Interstate 90/39 and Interstate 94 (which are already a mess in parts) if the state decided to tie transportation funding to the outcome of a statewide referendum. State government doesn’t operate by referendum—and thank goodness.
Nass hasn’t earned his indignation. He portrays the wheel tax as a deceptive loophole around state-imposed levy limits. But those levy limits coupled with a lack of state aid have left municipalities with few options to raise the money needed to maintain local roads.
Republicans in other states haven’t been so myopic in their approach to funding infrastructure. While the Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker rejected even a modest increase in the gasoline tax last year, the Republican-controlled Indiana Legislature voted to raise taxes and fees to generate as much as $1.2 billion annually for that state’s roadways. Indiana backed the increases because Republicans there understand economic growth depends on quality infrastructure.
Janesville and Milton are aggressively pursuing new manufacturers, and Janesville plans to redevelop the former GM plant site within the next year. Janesville generates about $1 million annually from its wheel tax, and like Milton it cannot afford to suddenly lose that revenue stream.
The wheel tax gives municipalities some means of addressing their most urgent needs.
To take away this small pot of revenue would reveal just how out of touch our Legislature has become.