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Why Is Transportation Such A Stickler In The State Budget?

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State budget discussions remain at a standstill. That’s despite plenty of ideas being thrown around. The issue the GOP lawmakers are hung up on, is transportation. They’re trying to figure out how to plug a $1 billion hole in the transportation budget, without delaying major projects such as the Zoo Interchange. It’s not the first time lawmakers have argued over how to pay for roads. Transportation has been a difficult issue in the past few budget cycles.

In Wisconsin, road projects and repairs are largely funded through the gas tax. It’s currently 31 cents per gallon. The tax used to automatically increase by a few pennies each year, but the legislature abolished the practice in 2006. And that’s when the stubborn problems with the transportation budget started, according to Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance spokesman David Callender.

“Up until that point, there had been an automatic increase based on several different variables and there was always a little more money coming in. Once you eliminated those automatic increases, then you essentially ended up with a stagnant revenue pool,” Callender says.

In lieu of automatic gas tax increases, the state legislature hiked the vehicle registration fee to help pay for roads. It jumped from 55 to 75 dollars in 2007. But, Gov. Walker immediately removed that tool from the table. When he took office in 2011, he made it clear, that there would be no increases in registration fees -- or gas taxes -- in his budgets. Walker has spent much of this year reiterating that position, including in this appearance on Channel 12.

“I’ve said that from day one, from the time I introduced the budget, consistently all the way through, now is not the time to raise gas taxes,” Walker says.

Walker’s stance comes against a backdrop of philosophical differences among Republicans in the legislature. JR Ross of wispolitics.com says the ideological split between the GOP leaders in the Assembly and Senate, complicates the search for answers.

“Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been saying you need new revenue to fund these major projects coming down the pike in the next few years and Scott Fitzgerald the Senate Majority Leader is saying that’s not a realistic option because Gov. Walker has said no increase in the gas tax and no increase in the registration fee so, how do you work in that dynamic, to find a solution?”

Ross says ultimately, Republicans want to find a dedicated funding source in future budgets to pay for major projects. Lawmakers have toyed with the idea of tolls. In addition, a group of Republican lawmakers is circulating a bill they say would help prevent future transportation deficits.

Mike Hahn of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, says lawmakers must find a long term solution soon. The commission has done research that predicts the region's transportation needs in coming decades, and Hahn says adequate funding is a must.

“Our long range plan can still be accomplished with the idea that funding could change into the future but in terms of the current situation and just the transportation program within the region, sure there is concern when there’s uncertainty for funding,” Hahn says.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has cautioned that huge road projects likely will crop up in the not-too-distant future. For instance – the reconstruction of much of the freeway system in southeastern Wisconsin. Many of the highways were built 40-50 years ago, and are nearing the end of their useful life.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.