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Transportation

The state’s powerful budget committee could have the authority to impose millions of dollars in new driving fees through a mileage-based or even tolling system if their proposal makes it into law.

The provision, included in the GOP’s sweeping transportation plan that passed the committee late Thursday, would give the 16-member committee, currently composed of 12 Republicans, the sole authority to approve any amount of new driving fees if Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signs off on the bill. Republicans on the state’s budget committee approved the plan 11-5 Thursday night.

The bill would give the Department of Transportation, controlled by Evers, $2.5 million to study how to implement a new transportation fee and come up with a recommendation for the committee to approve, deny or modify.

The DOT could then implement the plan passed by the budget committee without the governor, who hasn’t said whether he supports it. Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff declined to comment on the measure.

It has already generated resistance from some Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a moderate member of the GOP caucus, expressed skepticism about the measure, though he supports the broader transportation budget.

“I have some concerns because it’s a lot of power in 12 people,” Olsen said, referring to the dozen Republicans who control the finance committee. “I’m just not totally enamored by only the Joint Finance Committee having the final say in implementing (a fee increase).”

The potential fee increase is part of a broader GOP transportation plan that, if approved, would raise $484 million in revenue in part by hiking title fees, currently $69.50, by $95, and registration fees, currently $75, by $10. The plan is the latest from lawmakers who have long struggled to come up with a sustainable funding solution for the state’s roads.

If approved by the Legislature and governor, the plan could allow the Joint Finance Committee, along with the DOT, to put in place a mileage-based fee structure or tolling system essentially on their own starting in 2023. A mileage-based fee could refer to systems that charge drivers directly for the miles they travel on roads. It could be administered through odometer readings, GPS tracking, on-board devices or smart phones. Some have expressed privacy concerns over the government tracking mileage.

Such a system runs counter to the gas tax, which charges drivers indirectly through fuel consumption. The money collected can vary significantly due to differences in vehicle fuel efficiency.

Republicans shelved Evers’ plan to hike the gas tax by 8 cents per gallon and instead chose to hike title and registration fees, which Democrats have criticized as unfair because it does not account for differences in mileage accrued.

The Republican plan still needs approval from the full Legislature and must survive Evers’ veto pen.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, in a statement said the plan to delegate authority to charge a driver fee is a sign of poor governance by Republicans.

“Republicans have a history of passing poorly conceived and publicly unpopular ideas in the closing days of the budget process,” Shilling said. “These sloppy proposals are just the latest example of what happens when Republican politicians get together in secret and ignore the will of the people.”

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Olsen said the measure could also give the finance committee the authority to make a plan for tolling, which can require federal approval.

Both Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have previously said they are open to a tolling system.

Spokespersons for Vos and Fitzgerald didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The potential avenue toward adopting such a new fee structure has stern opposition from one of the most fiscally conservative members of the Senate, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who is also opposed to the broader transportation plan for contributing to the state’s structural deficit.

Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen said the measure is one of the most troubling in the package for the senator.

“It is not a study, it is an implementation plan,” Mikalsen said. “Only the Joint Finance Committee will have a say.”

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