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Transportation week comes with gas tax-hike pressure

By   /   December 4, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – It’s Transportation week in Wisconsin, and it appears Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is ready to play pitchman for tax hikes.

The Rochester Republican plans to release a transportation video Monday, a day before the Assembly Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s funding request.

Titled, “Road Work Ahead,” a brief advance clip of the video suggests Vos is going to push hard for various ways to cover Wisconsin’s Transportation budget shortfall (projected at nearly $1 billion) and, critics say, fatten the wallets of the state’s road-building industry at taxpayers’ expense.

In a statement issued Sunday evening, the speaker noted the goal of Tuesday’s Transportation hearing is to better understand the “full ramifications” of the proposed budget.

Vos and other Assembly leaders have taken aim at Gov. Scott Walker’s stance against raising the gas tax. The latest Transportation budget plan increases funds to local governments and emphasizes safety and maintenance projects on the state’s existing roadways, all initiatives the Republican governor says he can get behind.

“To do that in a way that met my commitment to the voters of the state when I said I was not going to raise gas taxes or vehicle registration fees without a corresponding reduction in taxes,” Walker said earlier this fall.

AP file photo

PITCHMAN: Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, appears ready to go full press on ‘all options on the table” to “fix” Wisconsin’s transportation funding shortfall. Is leadership gearing up for a tax hike? What kind of fight will they have on their hands with an adamant Gov. Scott Walker?

In his video, Vos, riding in the back of an ambulance, attempts to drive home the “impact bad roads have on emergency responders and, ultimately, your family in an emergency.”

“If we don’t fix our roads, sometimes, it could be a matter of life and death,” Vos warns in the press release, calling the current budget plan a “Band-Aid approach.”

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, sources say, is slated to release a memo Monday morning that will show how much of a tax hike per gallon of gasoline it would take to meet the growing transportation “needs” outlined by Assembly leadership and the road builders. The fiscal bureau last week published a summary of the DOT budget proposal. 

But if Vos, Joint Finance Committee co-chairman John Nygren, R-Marinette, do indeed call for a gas tax increase as one of their all-options-on-the-table plan, taxpayers should know that these lawmakers were against tax hikes before they were for them.

Gas tax indexing in Wisconsin was eliminated in 2006. Milwaukee Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat, at the time said doing so was a “significant step forward in making sure that elected officials are accountable to taxpayers.”

“All these tax hikes in Wisconsin should be openly and publicly debated, and voted on under scrutiny of the citizens who will bear the burden of such taxes,” Carpenter said in 2012.

  • Vos advocated against an 8-to-10 cent gas tax increase proposal in 2009. In the early days of Twitter, the Republican lawmaker tweeted at the time, “8-10 cent gas tax passes through committee. Maybe we can stop it on the floor. 2 Dems voted with us.”
  • In 2013, the speaker said raising gas taxes is “not the way to fix our transportation funding issues.”

The proposed hike, along with increases to vehicle registration costs and driver’s license fees, was part of the Legislature’s Transportation Finance and Policy Commission recommendations in January 2013. The tax and fee hikes would have raised about $480 million for transportation projects.

Vos said the recommendations didn’t have a lot of possibility of passing, and they didn’t.

“I just think now is not the right time to raise the gas tax,” the speaker said.

Is now?

That’s where all of this appears to be leaning – at least in part on the way to a more “sustainable solution to transportation funding,” as Vos and others in leadership have put it.

CONSERVATIVES: Find transportation savings at bloated DOT

Vos says there are no easy answers. Literally. Last month, he handed out to Capitol reporters a 27-page copy of a study, “No Easy Answers,” which takes aim at the “myths of transportation funding” and takes aim at fiscal hawks. The report notes the U.S. Department of Transportation ranked Wisconsin’s highways 47th nationally, 71 percent of them “poor or mediocre.”

Something’s got to give, seems to be the argument. That something – or someone – may just turn out to be taxpayers in the increasingly desperate-sounding transportation funding debate.

Wisconsin’s gas tax is 32.9 cents per gallon, nearly 3 cents higher than the national average of states.

Before legislative leadership hits the tax-hike highway, some conservative lawmakers want a thorough review of DOT’s spending.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, in September called for such a review.

“There are so many things we can enact in transportation, from how we fund projects to how we finance them to how we build them,” the lawmaker said, insisting there are significant cost savings to be had. “This isn’t pie in the sky stuff. All we have to do is look at other states.”

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.