Assembly candidates discuss state roads
Taxes, fees, debt, budgets examined
By Robert Cloud
Erin Tracy, the Democrat who is challenging state Rep. Kevin Petersen for the 40th Assembly seat, believes Wisconsin needs to improve its highways.
“I’ve seen a bunch of different reports. In some Wisconsin’s roads are the second worst in the country, in some we’re the fifth worst.” Tracy said. “That’s not a top 10 list we want to be a part of.”
U.S. News and World Report ranked the condition of Wisconsin roads 44th in the nation in 2018, up from 49th in 2017.
A report on Wisconsin roads, a research group funded by highway construction contractors, found 55 percent of Wisconsin’s major state and local roads had pavement in poor or mediocre condition.
“It’s past time that we invested in our infrastructure to keep everyone safe,” Tracy said.
Tracy said there are numerous options available to the state to increase its revenues.
One option is to automatically increase or decrease the state’s gas tax based on the Consumer Price Index.
Enacted in 1997, indexing allows transportation revenues to keep pace with inflation.
Under indexing, the state’s gas tax rose from 24.8 cents per gallon in November 1997 to 30.9 cents in April 2006, when the legislature eliminated indexing. The gas tax has not been increased since 2006.
“I’d rather index the gas tax and have safe roads than risk people’s lives on crumbling infrastructure,” Tracy said.
Tracy said another option is to increase the state’s vehicle registration fee, which has been $75 since 2008.
Petersen noted the disconnect between what voters want and what they are willing to pay.
“The majority of constituents I talk to want good roads, but they don’t want their taxes increased to get better roads,” Petersen said.
Petersen cited an early October Marquette University poll regarding Wisconsin’s roads.
He said 34 percent consider Wisconsin roads to be in fair condition, while 30 percent say they are in poor condition.
The same poll, Peterson said, found 61 percent oppose raising the gas tax and registration fees.
“Of the 30 percent who say roads are in poor condition, 52 percent don’t want gas taxes or registration fees raised,” Petersen said.
Wisconsin drivers pay 30.9 cents in state tax on each gallon of gas, Petersen said, as well as 2 cents for the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Act and 18.4 cents in federal excise tax.
“A total of 51.3 cents per gallon of gas is collected in taxes toward road repair,” Petersen said. “What are we doing to make sure every penny collected is used for the most potential?”
Noting the state raided the Transportation Fund for $1 billion during the Doyle administration, Petersen said a constitutional amendment that voters supported in a 2014 referendum has ended the practice of shifting highway money to other parts of the state budget.
While Petersen does not support raising registration fees in general, he does support higher registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles.
In 2017, a $75 surcharge was added to hybrids and a $100 surcharge was added to electric vehicles.
“They are using the road just as much as the gas vehicles, but because they’re not buying as much gas, they’re not paying as much gas tax for the roads,” Petersen said.
He noted California, as well as other states, have enacted higher fees for hybrids and electric cars to help ensure that all motorists pay their fair share for maintaining the roads.
Tracy raised concerns about the state paying for its roads through increased debt.
According to a November 2017 report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), the portion of the transportation budget covering debt payments has steadily increased.
In the 2010-11 biennial budget, the final budget prepared by former Gov. Jim Doyle, Wisconsin paid $197.2 million in debt service for road projects. That amounted to 11.5 percent of the state’s total transportation budget,
In the 2017-18 budget, the LFB estimated the state paid $380.2 million in debt service, about 20 percent of its total transportation budget.
The percentage of transportation funding paying for debt could rise by 1 percent in each budget, according to the LFB.
“I don’t like borrowing more money because I don’t want to pass the debt on to future generations,” Tracy said.
Petersen said past raids on the Transportation Fund have been responsible for the increased bonding.
He noted 22 cents of every dollar collected in the state’s gas tax goes to pay principal and interest on state bonding.
Petersen said by reducing waste and increasing efficiency, the state has implemented savings in the 2018-19 budget.
He attributed the savings to recommendations in a 2017 audit of the Department of Transportation.
“The DOT hadn’t been audited since 1996,” Petersen said.
The savings allowed the state to increase its funding for local roads in the 2018-19 budget.
Towns will see their general transportation funding increase by 8 percent, from $2,202 to $2,389 per mile.
Transportation funding for counties will increase by 12.9 percent, while cities will see an increase of 8.5 percent.
“It’s the largest increase in 20 years,” Petersen said.
The budget also includes an increase of $115 million for repair or replacement of 183 bridges statewide. Of that amount, $38.6 million is targeted for local bridges.
“These are the local bridges in rural areas that the constituents I represent go over every day,” Petersen said.
This is the first in a two-part series on the 40th District Assembly race.