Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

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Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 10

Wisconsin is finally serious about fixing its roads

The short-term fix for better Wisconsin roads is a modest increase in the gas tax, which hasn't been raised in more than a decade.

The long-term solution, given that vehicles of all sorts are burning less gas and transitioning to electric power, is a mileage fee for vehicle owners, and open-road tolling on interstate highways.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, unlike his predecessor, understands the state can't maintain a solid transportation system without a steady stream of revenue that at least keeps pace with inflation. The Republican-run Legislature seems to get that, too.

So a reasonable agreement appears likely, as Evers prepares to unveil his first state budget request.

Former GOP Gov. Scott Walker stubbornly resisted any increase in fees on motorists for political reasons. He thought he could impress presidential primary voters, but his dreams of winning the White House quickly faded.

Walker also thought his opposition to raising more road revenue would play well with Wisconsin voters. But he lost his re-election bid last fall.

Evers and others correctly faulted Walker for neglecting Wisconsin's roads, which have ranked near the bottom among the 50 states for their poor condition. Bad roads are a drag on business and the economy. They also threaten public safety.

To their credit, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, tried in varying ways during Walker's tenure to push for fiscally responsible solutions to the state's deteriorating roads. But Walker always punted the problem into the future.

That changes this year, with a new governor and bipartisan support for a lasting fix.

Motorists shouldn't fear having to pay more money. That's because they've been gradually paying less over time. As motorists purchase vehicles that get better gas mileage, they save money on fuel and pay less gas tax. Moreover, an increasing number of drivers are avoiding the gas tax altogether by operating electric vehicles.

Wisconsin needs a modern system of user fees that treats all drivers fairly. Electric and hybrid vehicles pay a higher registration fee because they contribute less in gas tax. Nonetheless, state revenue for roads will continue to slip without corrective action in the coming state budget.

The state's gas tax of 32.9 cents per gallon has been flat since 2006, which has slowed the collection of money for roads. To try to keep up with rising costs, Walker increased borrowing, which was irresponsible.

Vos and Fitzgerald spoke in favor of toll roads last week in Madison. Many Democrats, including Evers, are open the idea, too.

Modern tolling in which motorists mount a device on their windshield so they never have to stop for toll booths can raise billions of dollars over time on the interstates. The challenge is gaining federal approval for tolls, which could take years.

So in the coming budget, a gas tax increase, higher registration fees or some sort of mileage charge will be needed to improve our roads.

Evers and the GOP-run Legislature must cooperate to steer our transportation system forward.

___

The Journal Times of Racine, Feb. 11

Unpaid-fine license suspensions have become unwieldy

Suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay tickets or fines is a growing problem in Wisconsin, and other states.

It is a doom loop that both undercuts legitimate law enforcement and promotes a cycle of poverty.

That's the suggestion, at least, from the Feb. 4 Journal Times report that delved into the problem of rising suspensions in the state, to the point that nearly 60 percent of license suspensions in Wisconsin are due to failure to pay fines as opposed to all other reasons, such as drunken driving convictions or accumulating too many demerits for moving violations.

A study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Employment and Training Institute in a 2013 study found that 250,000 driver suspensions were issued for failure to pay fines, while 170,000 suspensions were issued for all other reasons.

That's a disturbing figure. It's one that weighs heaviest on people in lower-income groups, creating a modern-day debtor's prison.

As Susan Lund, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, put it: "The person can't pay the ticket, which causes their driver's license to be suspended. Then that person may lose their job, or lose out on a job opportunity, because they don't have a valid driver's license or a legal way to get to work. This clearly makes them even less likely to be able to pay the ticket, trapping them in a cycle of poverty."

What it also does is give the low-income driver a Hobson's choice: Drive and risk getting an unaffordable ticket for driving after suspension, or don't drive and lose his or her job. We know what choice is made, and that means more people will drive with suspended licenses, which diminishes the enforcement against dangerous drivers because license suspensions are treated less seriously.

That, in turn, tends to undercut traffic law enforcement in other areas as well.

To be clear, we believe drivers should pay their tickets and fines. And, yes, the prospect of paying a speeding ticket of a hundred or several hundred dollars is probably a good incentive for safe driving for those who can't afford the luxury of that outlay if it threatens to take food off the table or pay the rent. But as The Journal Times report noted, 200,000 drivers in Tennessee and Michigan had their licenses reinstated in 2017 and 2018 when federal courts concluded that it was unconstitutional to force a low-income individual to pay a debt to the government, especially since revoking someone's license can impugn someone's ability to make money that could be used to pay off that fine.

In the Tennessee case the U.S. District Court judge wrote: "If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver's license away sabotages that prospect."

Alternative solutions to failure-to-pay suspensions are needed at the state level, as the Racine City Council urged in an advisory resolution.

That could take the tack, as the City of Green Bay did last year, of garnishing tax returns for those who failed to pay tickets. Green Bay took that approach because it was dealing with $830,000 in unpaid parking tickets.

There are solutions and alternatives that can be found. But as it stands now, the practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid fines has become an unwieldy hammer that isn't getting the job done: It is both weighing heavily on low-income drivers and undercutting effective law enforcement.

___

The Daily Reporter, Milwaukee, Feb. 1

Whether lawmakers admit it, taxpayers already in deep with Foxconn project

Republican lawmakers have been patting themselves on the back in recent days for their foresight in tying the historical amount of state subsidies Foxconn stands to receive to its actual hiring and investments in Mount Pleasant.

And they do deserve some praise. Any good-government advocate would say a fundamental principle of using these incentives is that you shouldn't give away something for nothing.

But in noting that Wisconsin has yet to pay out a cent to a company that appears to be revising its plans for its Mount Pleasant site by the day, these lawmakers are overlooking something big: the hundreds of millions either already spent or under contract for Foxconn-related infrastructure work.

State officials have said well over a half-billion dollars of road improvements could be needed to accommodate the people who will eventually be going to and from the factory (and, yes, after suggesting at one point they'd only be building a research and development hub, Foxconn officials have now returned to planning a factory.) The biggest of those projects, widening Interstate 94 in Racine County and nearby counties, is far enough along that there's no turning back now.

It's fair to say this work would be taking place eventually whether Foxconn was coming or not. But the project was advanced last year for the sole purpose of supporting the new factory. Meanwhile, other long-planned jobs, such as expanding an east-west running section of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges, have been delayed indefinitely.

Beyond roads, there is the water and sewer work that's being undertaken for the Foxconn project. Racine County has estimated it will need to spend $120 million to expand its water system to the point where it can meet Foxconn's supposed need for 7 million gallons of water a day. By late November, the Racine Water and Wastewater Utilities already had more than $40 million of this work under contract.

It's much harder to argue any of this would be taking place were it not for Foxconn. Making matters worse, much of the money for this local work was eventually to come from property taxes generated by the new factory. True, local officials contend Foxconn is under a contractual obligation to build something with a valuation of at least $1.4 billion which would generate enough money to cover the public spending. And there are "claw back" provisions meant to protect taxpayers should Foxconn fall short of its promises. But enforcing any of this will not be easy, especially when we're dealing with a company with almost no presence in the United States.

Then there's all the money and time that's been spent acquiring land for the project and re-writing environmental rules and other regulations so Foxconn can build its factory exactly as it wants.

So, yes, lawmakers can say Foxconn has yet to receive any subsidies directly from the state. But if they argue the company hasn't benefited from taxpayers, they're guilty of overlooking some glaring facts.

Perhaps recognizing this, state and local officials were quick to say this week that Foxconn had assured them that their plans had not fundamentally changed. Whatever the company eventually builds, it will still be bringing 13,000 jobs; it will still be building a massive campus of some sort; and it will still be investing enough money to make Wisconsin the envy of public officials in any other Rust Belt state.

Yet, after so much else has changed, who can really believe these promises?

We at The Daily Reporter have generally been backers of the Foxconn project. Much of our support was grounded in the belief that state officials had taken the necessary steps to protect taxpayers and make sure Foxconn lived up to its commitments.

If Foxconn officials do end up deviating from their original plans in a substantial way, lawmakers shouldn't be able to just wash their hands of the whole thing and say: Oh well, at least they didn't get any subsidies. Too much has already been spent for that.

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