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Gas tax increase for Wisconsin road work? Opponents Walker and Burke leave door open

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MADISON — When it comes to funding for roads, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic opponent aren’t pouring specific ideas in concrete, but both stress the importance of transportation infrastructure and neither rejects the idea of raising the gas tax.

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Over this two-year budget cycle, Wisconsin is spending about $7 billion on transportation. But far more is needed, according to a task force convened by legislators.

Last year, the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission recommended boosting funding for roads by about $680 million annually. To get that money, the commission backed raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees and charging drivers a new fee based on how many miles they drive.

The proposal hit an immediate dead end, with Republicans who control the Legislature rejecting those ideas.

Walker has said, however, that he is committed to finding more money for roads. He has asked his transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, to come up with ideas for the next state budget, and Gottlieb has said he wants to secure about $680 million in new funding, as the commission sought.

Walker’s opponent, former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive Mary Burke, hasn’t determined whether she wants to spend more on transportation. But she said she would not rule out any options to supplement funding for highways — including raising the gas tax or creating a mileage fee.

She said she would prioritize road work based on what would create the most jobs, and would find new sources of revenue if necessary. But she also held out the possibility of cutting back on road projects to balance the transportation budget.

“I think people see transportation projects around the state and question whether those are a best use of resources that we have,” she said in an interview as her campaign bus traveled from Merrill to Wausau.

Walker has repeatedly opposed raising taxes and has said he plans to reduce overall taxes every year he is in office.

But in a written statement he signaled an openness to raising taxes to support transportation while cutting other taxes more deeply.

“Any discussion of ways to support the transportation needs of our state must be done as a part of a tax reform that lowers the overall (tax) burden,” his statement said.

He added: “We must also find ways to move away from dependence on the gas tax.”

He hasn’t said how the state might do that. The transportation industry and others have supported finding other revenue sources because vehicles are more fuel efficient — making gas tax collections stagnant.

TOLLS, FEE HAVE LITTLE TRACTION

One idea proposed by the commission was to charge people a fee based on how much they drive. The transportation commission recommended billing drivers about a penny per mile. The idea has been slow to gain traction.

Another way to boost transportation funding would be to allow tolls on major highways. That would require a change in federal law, putting it out of the immediate hands of state policy-makers. Walker said allowing tolls was “not on my agenda,” and Burke has not specifically addressed that idea.

Wisconsin officials do have the ability to implement limited tolling by creating what are known as HOT lanes, or high-occupancy toll lanes.

In that situation, the state might add one tolled lane to an existing highway. Drivers could use the untolled lanes or choose to pay to drive in the lower-traffic tolled lanes.

Walker has supported that concept, but his transportation secretary has said the state does not have any projects where it would be feasible.

In short, the state wouldn’t raise enough revenue to justify the cost of putting up tolls on those lanes.

LAST BUDGET BORROWED MONEY

In the last state budget, Walker approved borrowing $991 million over two years to pay for transportation projects.

He also helped pay for road projects by using

$258 million from other funds, such as the main state account, which helps pay for schools and local governments and provides funding for health care for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Burke was critical of Walker’s reliance on debt and transferring money from other funds to pay for road work.

“The fact that Governor Walker took money from the general fund, from other places, and also basically kicked the can down the road by issuing debt is not the right thing to do,” she said. “These one-off things are not going to help us over the long term.”

Walker defended his stance on transportation, saying road projects were essential to boosting the state’s economy.

“We put more resources into our transportation system and started

paying back the roughly $1.4 billion in raids to the transportation fund that occurred during Governor Jim Doyle’s time in office,” his statement said.

During his time in office, Walker’s Democratic predecessor and lawmakers from both parties used the transportation money to pay for schools.

They issued bonds to backfill much of the money so they could continue road projects.

Republicans have now stopped that practice and scheduled a referendum in November to amend the Wisconsin Constitution so that couldn’t happen in the future.

Whoever is governor after the election will face challenges when it comes to funding roads.

The transportation fund is initially projected to face a shortfall of about $700 million from mid-2015 to mid-2017. That money is needed to stay on schedule with ongoing projects.

“We’ve got to find a solution next year,” said Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. “If it’s status quo, then I think that’s going to mean pretty significant cuts.”

Goss said his road-building group works with politicians from both parties. It has supported Walker in the past and will continue to do so because it sees him as committed to transportation, Goss said.

Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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