To most people, the difference between a “fee” and a “tax” is semantics. You wind up paying for government services either way.
Yet Republicans who control the Statehouse are acting like fees are just fine, while taxes are terrible.
It’s an exaggerated and politically driven distinction, especially when it comes to paying for Wisconsin’s poorly maintained roads.
And in trying to avoid the “t” word — “tax” — GOP lawmakers will cost Wisconsin drivers greater expense in fees while letting visiting motorists from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and other states off the hook.
The Legislature should compromise on its proposed state transportation budget. It should accept some of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ more balanced approach to better roads.
In some ways, both partisan sides are in agreement. They both want to spend around the same total amount of money on transportation. And they have agreed to borrow less money, about $330 million, which is a welcome change from excessive borrowing by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Where the two sides differ is on how to raise new revenue to improve the state’s neglected highway system, which ranks as one of the worst maintained in the nation.
The Legislature’s GOP-run budget committee wants to more than double vehicle title fees in Wisconsin by $95 to $164.50, generating $273 million in additional revenue. The Republican plan also would increase the annual vehicle registration fee by $10 to $85 a year, generating $84 million in more money. GOP lawmakers want to define more vehicles as hybrids, which would bring in an extra $11 million.
Virtually all of those new dollars would come from state residents. So would most of the $90 million the GOP wants to grab from the state’s general fund for transportation needs.
What the Republicans are refusing to do is increase the state’s gas tax, which would force out-of-state drivers to contribute more to fixing the Wisconsin roads they use. Illinois tourists and other visitors, as well as long-distance truck drivers, pay the gas tax every time they fill their tanks in Wisconsin. So they would pay more if the gas tax were increased by 8 cents per gallon, as Gov. Evers has proposed.
Republicans may score some political points by blocking a gas tax hike. But by relying so heavily on title and registration fees instead, the Republicans are giving motorists from other states a free ride.
The gas tax, which is really just a user fee, hasn’t been increased in 13 years, so it hasn’t kept up with inflation and higher construction costs. At the same time, the average Wisconsin motorist is burning 48 fewer gallons annually than a decade ago because vehicles are more fuel efficient. So the average driver is spending about $15 less in fuel taxes.
Evers’ gas tax increase would bring in $533 million in new revenue over two years — with a significant portion of those dollars coming from out of state. And for the average Wisconsin driver, the higher cost would be just $35 more a year, which is just a few bucks a month.
That’s well worth better roads, without all of the burden falling on state residents.