My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
Gov. Scott Walker released his transportation budget proposal last week and made his position perfectly clear when stating he is “not going to raise the gas tax or other associated fees without a corresponding reduction.” That is a welcome statement to this taxpayer.
The issue Wisconsin is facing in the next budget is the forecasted revenue for the transportation fund falls about a billion dollars short of paying for forecasted expenditures. Whether this happens to a family, business or government, there are only three things one can do when this happens: reprioritize and reduce the forecasted spending, borrow money, or find a way to increase revenue. Walker has taken the last option off the table and attacked the issue with a combination of the first two options.
Walker’s justification for refusing to increase revenue by increasing taxes or fees is simply that despite several years of tax cuts, Wisconsinites are still taxed too much. Walker would rather the government do the heavy lifting of prioritizing and cutting back instead of forcing families to do it to pay higher taxes. The governor is right.
Wisconsin’s gas tax is still among the highest in the nation. According to a fact sheet the governor released, at 32.9 cents per gallon, Wisconsin’s total taxes and fees collected at the pump ranks as the 11th highest in the nation. But that is only part of the story. The same Wisconsinites who pay the gas tax also pay all of the rest of Wisconsin’s tax burden, and it is a heavy burden. Wisconsin still ranks as the fifth highest taxed state according to CNN/Money. As State Sen. Duey Stroebel rightly said in a recent column, “With Wisconsin’s overall tax burden still in the top 10, this is no time to be campaigning for higher taxes.”
Meanwhile, it should be noted Wisconsin spends a ton of money on transportation — more than most states. Wisconsin spends about $3.8 billion per year on highways, which ranks 14th nationally. Total transportation spending, including state and local spending, is 33 percent higher than the national average according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In other words, despite cries of “poor” from some folks, there is plenty of money for transportation. Yes, the recipients of that spending always want more, but it is the job of the administration to prioritize the spending within the confines of Wisconsinites’ ability and willingness to pay.
That is exactly what Walker’s budget proposal does. Walker’s transportation budget proposal actually increases state funding for maintenance of existing roads and sends more money to local units of government for their transportation needs. He partially pays for those increases by halting, delaying, and slowing down some existing projects including the widening of Verona Road in Madison, expanding Interstate 94 in Racine and Kenosha, and part of the Zoo Interchange.
Walker’s budget proposal also seeks to borrow $500 million, which, according to the governor, is the lowest level of borrowing since the 2001-03 budget. That is still a lot of borrowing, but using debt to fund major projects used for 30 years by future taxpayers, too. The key is to manage debt sensibly.
Walker is taking the correct approach to managing the state’s transportation needs through prioritization and forcing efficiencies instead of turning to the taxpayers for more money. He is also right to shift more spending to maintaining the roads the state has and away from more expansions. Is it perfect? No. It still spends and borrows too much, but it is a very good start.