State Legislators Near Budget Deal

Meh.

Leaders of the state Legislature’s budget-writing committee said Tuesday they have a plan to resolve the most contentious area of the state’s overdue budget: how to fund Wisconsin’s roads and bridges.

The plan slightly trims Gov. Scott Walker’s road-borrowing blueprint, imposes a new fee on electric and hybrid vehicles and moves the state closer to collecting highway tolls, according to the committee’s co-chairpersons, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling.

The great missed opportunity of this budget was to make dramatic reforms in the size and scope of government. The problem with the transportation budget is that Wisconsin still spends way too much – much more per mile than comparable states – and legislators refuse to make serious reforms in the way the state goes about building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. Instead of tackling the fundamental problems while Republicans control the entire law-making apparatus of state government, they have chosen to nibble around the edges and kick the can a little further down the road.

As for the framework of a deal itself, the biggest item, symbolically if not fiscally, is the imposition of a new tax on electric and hybrid vehicles. While I abhor the notion of a new tax to just prop up bloated spending, this tax is conceptually palpable.

As I said, the big issue is the spending, but a secondary issue is that the funding mechanisms for transportation isn’t as applicable as it once was. Wisconsin funds transportation by the vehicle registration fees and by the tax on gas. The gas tax was intended as a proxy for usage. In general, the more gas one buys, the more they are driving, the more they are using the roads, the more they are paying for the roads. But electric cars (and hybrids to a lesser extent) subvert that proxy.

If we want to stick to the notion that people who use the roads more should pay more for them, and we don’t want toll roads, then we need to find a way to impose more taxes on those who use the roads but don’t buy gas.

I was struck by a quote in a biography of Robert Morris that I’m finishing up. In countering David Howell’s opposition to the Impost Law in his native Rhode Island, Morris said:

“As all taxes are unpleasant, some state will be found to oppose any which can be devised, on quite as good ground as the present opposition. What then is the Consequence?”

The same is true here. The drivers of electric cars and hybrids will protest a new tax on them, but opposition and clams of unfairness can be found in any tax. At some point, if we have decided that we collectively want to spend this money, we have to tax people to get the money somehow. It seems that spreading the burden out on as many users of the system as possible is the fairest way to do it.