When it comes to funding government, we’re adamantly opposed to borrowing in lieu of making potentially unpopular cuts or finding new ways to fund government services. To choose to borrow is to kick the can down the road: While there may be some satisfaction in getting the can away from you, you don’t make the can go away.
We had hoped, and thought we saw, some appetite for new approaches in dealing with the projected $1 billion shortfall in the state’s transportation fund as the budget progressed. Instead, as the ink dried late last week on Gov. Scott Walker’s signature on the biennial budget, we ended up with more of the same.
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee broke a road-funding impasse on Sept. 5 by imposing new state registration fees of $100 for electric vehicles and $75 for hybrid vehicles.
But the plan announced that same night borrowed slightly more than $400 million for transportation, compared to Walker’s budget, which called for borrowing $500 million.
If you owe $100, borrowing $40 or $50 to deal with the debt is a short-term fix that creates a long-term problem.
We understand the gasoline tax is an important component of the current transportation funding formula. While hybrids and electric vehicles don’t use nearly as much gasoline — all-electric vehicles obviously don’t use any — they do use the state’s roads and contribute to their wear and tear. Therefore, hybrids and electrics should be taxed differently.
But the discrepancy raises a question: Is dependence on the gasoline tax an outdated way to fund our highways? In the 1970s, when nearly everyone was driving a big, gas-gulping sedan, relying on the gasoline tax made sense. Here in 2017, when even larger-model cars are far more fuel-efficient than their equivalents from 40 years ago, a user-fee approach — one tied to actual miles driven, vehicle weight, or driving through a tolling checkpoint — seems a better way to share the burden of state road funding.
The vetoes to the state budget, which runs through June 2019, include a number of promises Walker made earlier this month to three Republican senators — Sens. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield; Steve Nass, R-Whitewater; and Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville — to secure their support on the spending plan, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
As part of the deal with the three senators, among Walker’s vetoes was the elimination from the $76 billion budget of a $2.5 million study looking into toll roads in Wisconsin.
That $2.5 million constitutes 0.000033 percent of the biennial budget. It’s nearly equivalent to a rounding error when talking 11-figure dollar amounts.
When it comes to state transportation funding, especially in light of the budget shortfall, it’s at least worth studying methods which are new to Wisconsin. With his veto pen, the governor decided toll roads aren’t even worth studying.
When our elected officials refuse to even consider new methods for transportation funding in favor of borrowing more money, it’s kicking the can down the road in its worst form. It’s continuing to fund government in the old way and sticking our children and grandchildren with the bill.