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WI voters soon may be deciding proposed constitutional change

By   /   January 28, 2013  /   4 Comments

By Kirsten Adshead  |  Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — The Legislature is edging closer to asking Wisconsin voters whether to amend the state constitution to ensure that transportation-related revenue stays in the transportation fund.

After years of raiding the transportation fund in order to pay for other programs, the Legislature last session passed a joint resolution that would block future lawmakers from doing the same.

Having passed a joint resolution last session, the Legislature is one step away from asking Wisconsinites whether the state constitution should be amended to ensure that transportation-related revenue — from things like vehicle registration fees and the gas tax — stays in the transportation fund.

But Wisconsin law requires that a proposed constitutional amendment pass through two consecutive Legislatures before going to the voters for final approval in a referendum.

Lawmakers sponsoring the joint resolution in the Assembly and Senate this session are predicting strong bipartisan support for the measure once again, meaning the question could be put before Wisconsinites on a ballot this year or next, depending on how quickly the Legislature acts.

“When we collect taxes for a specific purpose, I think the money should fund what we told the public it would fund,” said Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, the chief sponsor of the resolution in the Assembly. “We need to protect those segregated funds.”

The proposal has been re-introduced this session, but hasn’t come up for a vote in either chamber.

The state’s transportation fund contains the bulk of the funding for transportation projects, about $1.8 billion in 2011-12, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

It’s where the gas taxes, vehicle registration and title fees and the like end up.

But since 2003, officials have been taking money from the transportation fund to help balance the general fund, taking about $1.4 billion over the decade.

Lawmakers transferred some of money back to the transportation fund, but replaced most of it by borrowing money, which then has to be repaid with interest.

“We’re not finding fault with where the money went, because there was all the other important things that needed to be funded,” Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, told the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs last week during a hearing on the joint resolution.

Petrowski noted that he was not assigning blame for the fund transfers.

“But I do believe that because this was the largest fund that seemed to be used for a variety of other purposes, it’s important that those dollars stay in transportation,” said Petrowski, the committee’s chair, who also is a lead sponsor on the legislation.

The Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, a citizens group formed in October 2011, last week finished its study of transportation funding, concluding that just to maintain current infrastructure, the state will be short nearly $6 billion in transportation funds over the next decade.

Even before the commission released its report, Gov. Scott Walker had said he doesn’t want to hike the gas tax, which was one of the commission’s recommendations.

“But the gap that we outlined is real, and none of the answers are necessarily simple,” commission member Craig Thompson told the Senate committee last week, speaking in support of the constitutional amendment. “But I think we can have a better conversation if people have the confidence that their money’s going where it’s supposed to.”

The future of other recent constitutional amendment proposals is less clear.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, the newly appointed Assembly Speaker, said in September that he plans to re-introduce a proposal to make it harder to recall an elected officials.

Vos’ office, however, did not immediately return messages Monday asking for an update on his plans.

Rep. Leon Young, D-Milwaukee, also wants to pass a joint resolution this year aimed at amending the Constitution to limit the amount of time lawmakers are in session.

Neither proposal, however, has passed the Legislature. So even if lawmakers during this session approved the resolutions, the proposals would need a second passage by the 2015-2016 Legislature in order to get on the ballot.

Contact Kirsten Adshead at [email protected]


Kirsten formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Dick Dastardly

    Not a dime for high speed rail.

  • Craig Richards

    Agree on the HSR … and sweet name!

  • Iamacitizen2

    If we the people are being hit to pay a specific tax for a “specific reason” then those specifically taxed funds should stay in that “SPECIFIC FUND” that we are taxed on and used for that SPECIFIC reason. To TAKE any of those funds and use those those funds for any other lame brain reason is to me extracting those ear tagged specific taxes from we the citizens of Wisconsin fraudulently. This is another reason why this country is in such a financial mess, our taxes are being collected and sent and used where??? A TRUST fund was set up initially for social security and medicare and look whats happened. The TRUST FUND has been RAIDED illegally for years of we the peoples hard earned deposited money for our future retirement. Enough already. When a tax is charged to we the people for a specific reason then QUIT ROBBING THIS ACCOUNT to use it for everything other than what this tax was intended for initially. We need state and local government to be accountable and respectful of what they say and do and how they spend OUR money. To me this TAX is a bait and switch. When the roads need repair and they do, where’s the money we the people were commanded to pay ADDITIONAL taxes for???

  • Well….after watching CBS last Sunday Morning we have Constitutional Law Professors saying we need to dump the whole Constitution. This country is beyond repair, so get ready for the broken wagon.