Vos, Fitzgerald trade highway funding ideas

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FOR the first time in eight years, there's no Republican Gov. Scott Walker saying, "Read my lips: We will not raise any tax or fee to pay for highways."

So, Republican legislative leaders are quietly trading ideas on ways to boost transportation spending without raising the 30.9-cent per gallon gas tax, which hasn't been increased since 2006.

"I think we're making pretty good progress," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a WisconsinEye interview during the state Republican Party convention.

VOS predicted that "significant revenues for transportation" will be part of the 2019-21 budget Republicans put on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers desk by June 30.

In a separate interview at the Republican convention, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans who control the state Senate won't raise the gas tax.

In February, Evers asked for an 8-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, which would raise an additional $484.9 million by mid-2021.

Evers also wants to adjust the gas tax annually for inflation, which would bring in $41.6 million more over the next two years.

"I don't see the gas tax [increase] right now," Fitzgerald said. "Wisconsin has relied so heavily on the gas tax."

THE 8-cent per gallon jump requested by Evers means Wisconsin would have one of the 10 highest gas taxes of all states, and "indexing" that higher tax for inflation would rank Wisconsin second or third highest, Fitzgerald added.

Wisconsin's gas tax raises more than $1 billion per year, bringing in 53% of all Transportation Fund revenues.

But Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans are considering these other revenue-raising changes:

• Raising the $75 annual registration fee for cars and light trucks, which hasn't been increased since 2008.

That fee, which the Evers budget did not increase, brings in more than $700 million a year - 35% of all Transportation Fund revenues.

A $10 increase in the registration fee for cars and light trucks would bring in an additional $47.5 million per year.

• Raising registration fees on heavy trucks is an option "still on the table," despite opposition from Wisconsin-based trucking companies, Fitzgerald said.

Evers proposed a 27% increase in heavy-truck registration fees, which would bring in $36.3 million more by mid-2021, according to the Legislature's budget office.

• Raising the $69.50 fee to issue or transfer a vehicle title.

Evers requested a $10 increase in that fee, which the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said would raise an additional $35.7 million by mid-2021.

FOR the first time, Fitzgerald also floated this trial-balloon idea: Using part of an extra $753 million in general-fund taxes expected by mid-2021 to pay for one-time fixes to bridges or highways.

The Legislature's budget office recently forecast $753 million more in tax collections by July 1, 2021. Most of it is a one-time windfall resulting from how businesses paid taxes in the wake of the federal Tax Reform Act.

"There's an important need to rebuild bridges in this state," Fitzgerald said. "There's nothing that says you couldn't use that one-time money to build bridges in Wisconsin."

Vos was cool to that idea, however.

"I am very, very reluctant to take money from our general fund . and have it also fund transportation," said Vos, who prefers a "user-based fee system."

Vos then floated his own controversial idea: Lay the groundwork in this budget to collect a future "mileage based" annual registration fee.

It would require a vehicle's owner to report how many miles it had been driven in the previous year, which would determine the annual registration fee.

BUT, Vos added, "I don't want to have black boxes in peoples' cars" that automatically report actual miles driven to state officials.

Vos said a mileage-based registration fee must be considered, since electricity will power one-third of vehicles on state roads by 2030.

"We can't expect the two-thirds of cars on the road to pay for 100% of the traffic that's actually on our highways," Vos said. "We've got to figure out some ways to begin capturing people who are not using gasoline."

But Evers still believes that budget he recommended in February is the "sustainable solution .to invest in our infrastructure," aide Melisa Baldauff said.

A "modest" 8-cent gas tax increase "ensures that Wisconsin residents alone" don't pay to maintain highways, because out-of-state visitors would also pay it, Baldauff added.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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