Wis. DOT needs revenue, where it comes from is up for debate

By  | 

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Wednesday, republicans in Wisconsin's legislature introduced a package of bills in response to the Department of Transportation's budget request for the 2019-2020 biennium. The "Road to Sustainability Package," authors say, will improve the department's efficiency and provide needed funding without raising taxes.

"We think that can be part of the solution for a good long term fix, to make sure we have good roads here in Wisconsin," co-author Sen. Tom Tiffany said about the package of 15 bills.

The package includes moving transportation related revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund, creating monetary incentives for DOT employees to innovate, require more flexibility in bidding, and more oversight from the audit bureau and legislature so funding is being spent equitably.

None of the proposals raise taxes.

"We also want to have accountability measures that make sure that we're spending the taxpayers dollars wisely, for transportation purposes," Tiffany said.

That accountability push comes after the Legislative Audit Bureau found numerous issues during the 2017-2018 budget cycle, including those related to financial reporting and the department paying for unneeded construction items.

DOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson inherited those problems and said he is working with the audit bureau to make the recommended changes and enforce them.

He said he and his department are still looking over the package of bills introduced Wednesday and says some might have merit, "but overall, I think a lot of them are trying to legislatively mandate decisions that engineers should be making out in the field," he said frankly. "I think in the end, it could result in some poor quality of roads and cost the taxpayers dollars in the long run."

Gov. Evers' proposed state budget includes $320 million additional revenue to the DOT to get more roads fixed in a timely manner. Thompson said over the last 20 years, this proposal is the best he has seen in terms of creating a sustainable way to fund transportation.

Thompson urged, if that additional money doesn't become part of the department's funding, 212 road projects from throughout the state will be cut from the six-year plan for renovation.

"We've been seriously underfunded at the department for decades now," he said, "and we don't have enough revenue to be able to deliver the type of projects and keep our roads and the type of condition that the public wants and is demanding."

Thompson, when asked if the amount of funding in the governor's proposal would be met without raising taxes, he responded, "No, it doesn't come close to meeting the identified needs that we've talked about."

"If we look at 30 other states around the country last several years, many of them, the most conservative, reddest states in the country, have all increased their gas taxes to pay it because that is the sustainable way to fund transportation moving forward," he continued.

"Trying to transfer money out of the general fund that is currently being spent on health care and education and others is not a sustainable way to fund transportation."

He said that is because the state constitution requires that transfer be approved every budget cycle.

"We've always done through user fee. That's what Dwight Eisenhower said, that's what Ronald Reagan said, that's what Tommy Thompson said. So this is not a conservative or liberal idea to fund transportation with constitutionally protected user fees like the gas tax."

Thompson, a former lobbyist and executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers in January to the DOT secretary position. He has not yet been confirmed by the legislature. Thompson pushed for a gas tax increase in the previous budget cycle during the Walker Administration as well.

Shortly after being appointed, Gov. Evers directed Thompson to hold transportation stakeholder task force meetings consisting of people from a variety of political backgrounds, industries, and transportation priorities coming from all over Wisconsin.

The task force favored increasing the gas tax by 5 cents on top of returning gas tax indexing, transferring the sales tax from vehicle and part purchases from the general fund to the transportation fund, increasing local transportation program funding, questioning the validity of some of the major highway expansion projects to find a better benefit cost ratio, increasing registration fees on trucks, and making the definitions of the stages of road conditions to be more clear and comprehensive among other topics.

"We're looking at increasing the gasoline tax by 8 cents, returning indexing back to get the gas tax, like we had from 1980, up until 2006, here, getting rid of the minimum markup law, which marks up gas by 9.18%, which would should offset some of that, and then... also increasing the registration fee on heavy trucks and a $10 increase in our title fees," he said of the proposed budget.

Again, Tiffany disagrees, but says some of the proposals are head in the right direction.

"I think they hit the priorities right, as far as let's maintain and repair what we have before we expand. It's just a matter of the source of revenue. I don't think we need to raise the gas tax in order to do that."

Tiffany, who is a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said it will be another two weeks before they meet to talk about the transportation portion of the budget.