An estimated $1.8 billion a year would be dedicated to improving Wisconsin’s transportation system — and prohibited from any other use — under a proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot.
The measure calls for the state to put all gas tax revenues, vehicle registration and titling fees, driver’s license fees and other similar revenue streams into a fund “for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems.”
The constitutional amendment is one of the few issues on which Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic rival, Mary Burke, agree. It passed two successive legislative sessions by wide, bipartisan margins. Among those supporting a “yes” vote is state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, who has said a good transportation system is a key to economic development.
“I don’t know of many issues Walker and Burke both support,” said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, which leads the Vote Yes for Transportation campaign. “We kind of feel like we’ve found an issue that people can put down their ideological divide and support.”
Thompson said his group pushed for the constitutional amendment after about $1.4 billion in transportation funding was shifted to education and other programs during the eight-year tenure of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
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But why amend the state Constitution? Thompson said there already are state laws requiring that certain revenues be used for transportation. But those proved to be merely a “speed bump,” he said, as lawmakers figured out ways divert transportation fees to other uses.
Thompson said a statewide poll of 500 likely voters commissioned by the Vote Yes for Transportation campaign in mid-September found about 70 percent support the proposed amendment.
“There really was very little variation between Madison and Milwaukee and out-state,” Thompson said. “There was basically no difference between Democrats and Republicans in how they viewed it.”
Opposition to measure
As of Oct. 20, the Vote Yes for Transportation campaign had raised about $365,000, primarily from Thompson’s Transportation Development Association, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and labor groups including the local and international operating engineers’ unions. Nearly 60 labor, business, governmental and economic development groups are listed as supporters.
There is no organized opposition to the amendment. But not everyone is on board.
State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said passage of the amendment would skew state spending toward transportation over other needs. Risser was among eight Democratic state senators who voted against the amendment when it came before the Legislature for a second time in 2013.
“This prioritizes roads over education, over health care, over safety — over every other thing in the budget,” Risser said. “Money going into the transportation fund can’t be pulled out, even in the case of an emergency.”
He added that amending the Constitution to wall off such funding is “going too far.”
“The Legislature’s elected officials should have the ability to move funds around in the state, as needed,” he said. “As a member of the Legislature, I don’t think that (constitutional amendment) is appropriate, and I don’t think it’s in the interest of the public.”
Risser said the amendment caters to “one special interest group” that would “get a constitutional lock on a big sum of money.”
Responded Thompson: “It really has nothing to do with prioritizing spending. It’s really about using the monies as they were intended.”
No extra money
Risser noted that the amendment also does not solve the $680 million funding gap between transportation projects that have been approved and projected revenues. Gas-tax revenues have been slowly declining as vehicle miles driven have flattened over the past decade while the fuel efficiency of vehicles has improved.
The amendment, he said, “does not raise one penny for the highway fund.”
The Wisconsin Budget Project, a program of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, is urging a “no” vote on the amendment. Although Doyle did move money out of the transportation fund during his eight years in office, Walker has added general-purpose revenue to it during his four years, resulting in a net gain of $314 million to the transportation fund over the past 12 years, the budget project said.
Walker and top Republican legislative leaders have not adopted recommendations by a Walker-appointed commission in January 2013 to raise gas taxes and registration fees by an annual average of $120 per vehicle to address the shortfall.
The current state fuel tax is 30.9 cents per gallon; another 2 cents a gallon is levied to pay for inspection and cleanup of leaking underground fuel storage tanks. The registration fee for cars is $75 a year. The state Department of Transportation estimates that the average sedan owner pays $179 a year in such fees and taxes.
In recent weeks, the governor has floated the idea of levying a sales tax on the cost of fuel rather than a per-gallon tax but said such a change would be revenue neutral — raising questions about how it would close the funding gap.
The nonprofit public-interest group WisPIRG has not taken a position on the constitutional amendment. But its executive director, Bruce Speight, said the measure does nothing to address the imbalance in state spending that favors highways, which are seeing little growth in traffic, over other modes of transportation including mass transit, which has seen record-high usage in recent years.
Currently, about three-fourths of the $3.5 billion-a-year Department of Transportation budget is used to improve and expand state highways and bridges and local roads, DOT estimates. Mass transit, railroads, airports, harbors, bicycle and pedestrian improvements account for about 10 percent of the budget.
The $1.8 billion in fees and taxes support about half of the transportation budget while federal funds, borrowing, general-purpose revenue and other funds account for the rest.
“I think it (amendment) is a distraction from the real transportation issues we face, which is that we’re wasting dollars on projects that the data don’t support,” Speight said. “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. We need to get our priorities straight.”
But Thompson said motorists deserve to know that the gas taxes and registration fees they pay are being used for services they were collected to support. He noted that 31 states have similar constitutional amendments, including some of Wisconsin’s Midwestern neighbors, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.
“People in this state needed certainty that when they pay user fees that they will, in fact, go for the uses they were intended,” Thompson said. “These user fees should be what funds transportation.”