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Truck fees a 'potential piece' of Wisconsin transportation budget deal

The Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly said Thursday that a new fee on heavy trucks could help solve a Republican stalemate over how to pay for roads, prompting a sharp backlash from business groups opposed to the idea.

The proposal by state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, would create a new mileage-based registration fee for trucks that weigh more than 8,000 pounds.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told the Associated Press that Loudenbeck's plan was "one of the potential pieces" that would lead to the passage of a new state budget. Vos discussed the idea with Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday.

Loudenbeck said the plan could appease Republicans who want a better solution to funding roads but don't want to increase the gas tax or raise vehicle registration fees.

"It's actually a user fee that's generated and supportive of the infrastructure which is being utilized by the payer," Loudenbeck said. "As a conservative, I think paying for what you use is a good policy."

Loudenbeck stressed that the plan was a work in progress but said an early estimate of the proposal showed it could generate $138 million per year in revenue.

After Vos made his comments Thursday, a broad coalition of business groups came out against the plan, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, Schneider National and Walmart.

"Targeting heavy trucks ... to fix Wisconsin's transportation budget will raise the cost to do business here in Wisconsin," the groups wrote in a letter to the governor and state legislators.

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin called the plan "highway robbery."

Two Republican state senators who have been outspoken critics of raising taxes for roads also spoke out against the new fee for trucks.

"I have always stated I believe that we are sending enough money to our Department of Transportation," said Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville. "I haven't yet been convinced to the contrary."

"Its costs will be passed on to the little guy at the end of the process," said Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

While the opposition by Nass and Stroebel was not unexpected, it's potentially significant. That's because Republicans can only afford to have three of their members vote no in the Senate if they want to pass a budget without help from Democrats.

In the Assembly, where Republicans enjoy a 64-35 majority, Vos has been more outspoken about the need to increase taxes or fees in order to fund expensive road projects and reduce the state's reliance on borrowing.

Loudenbeck said she thought conservatives could support the idea of a user fee, especially when interstate truckers already are required to track their mileage.

"If you are a commercial carrier, you are already in the system," Loudenbeck said. "The government's already in the passenger seat."

But there's no firm guarantee the mileage-based truck fee would pass the Assembly, where Loudenbeck said Republicans discussed it privately as a group for the first time Wednesday.

Walker's position on the fee is also unclear. While the governor has threatened to veto a gas tax increase, his office didn't respond Thursday when asked whether Walker would support Loudenbeck's new truck fee.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news.

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