The Pothole Repair Act
Republican legislators debate allowing counties 0.5% sales tax for road repairs and maintenance.
The state Assembly will soon debate a bill allowing counties to levy a 0.5 percent sales tax to rebuild crumbling local streets and highways, if voters in that county pass a referendum agreeing to the surtax. The bill has much less support in the Senate, however.
“This is the Pothole Repair Act,” Republican Rep. Dean Knudson, a former mayor of Hudson, said last week. “It’s only for repair and maintenance.”
Knudson said his bill, which got a 14-0 vote from Republicans and Democrats on the Assembly Transportation Committee, would dramatically help local governments.
What the surtax raises would be divided according to a formula based on the miles of roadways maintained by each county, city, village and town.
“Most (local governments) would probably see a doubling” in cash for local roadways, Knudson added.
According to the state Department of Revenue, 62 of the 72 counties now levy a 0.5% sales tax to help pay for other local programs. If those same 62 counties levied a new half-cent sales tax to maintain local highways, streets and bridges, it could raise about $333 million a year, the department estimated.
Other provisions of Knudson’s bill:
*The countywide 0.5 percent surtax must end after four years. It could only be extended if a county board voted to put a new referendum to continue it before voters, and that passed.
*Countywide referendums on whether to levy the 0.5 percent surtax could only be held in April or November general elections.
*Counties and local governments getting aid from the surtax could not use it to reduce what they now spend on those programs. A “maintenance of effort” provision in the bill requires local governments to keep spending an amount equal to the average of what they have spent over the past five years.
*Cash from the 0.5 percent surtax could not be used to fund bus or mass transit systems.
Lobbyists for local governments say those communities desperately need that additional cash. “An optional half-cent local option sales tax for transportation purposes at the county level will significantly help counties address their highway funding needs,” says Dan Bahr of the Wisconsin Counties Association.
Knudson’s bill “provides local governments with a new tool to address the backlog of maintenance on local roads and bridges, while also charging local taxpayers with the decision of whether to approve the tax,” Bahr adds.
Paying for state and local highways systems is “the most pressing problem” facing Wisconsin, Knudson said. And, in this session of the Legislature, “No other concrete suggestions have really come forward.”
“Allowing local communities the option to raise money specifically for transportation purposes in their own area is good public policy,” says Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, a statewide umbrella group that has been pushing for long-term funding of state and local highways for years.
Thompson suggests one change in Knudson’s bill: “Ideally, the legislation should allow voters the latitude to raise the money for any form of transportation they deem important for their community, including mass transit.”
Knudson’s bill has 16 bipartisan sponsors in the Assembly, including Joint Finance Committee Co-chairman John Nygren and Assistant Majority Leader Dan Knodl. But only one of the 33 senators – Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany – has signed on so far.
Knudson said he expects “strong bipartisan support” for his bill when it passes the Assembly in the next few weeks. But passage by the Assembly won’t force the Senate, although it also controlled by Republicans, to take up the bill, Knudson conceded.
Knudson said it is “ridiculous” for other conservative Republicans to oppose his bill, saying that it raises taxes. Instead, he said, it puts decision-making in the hands of local elected county supervisors and local voters, and the surtax must end after four years.
The philosophy behind the bill, he insists, is crystal clear: “It really is consistent with conservative principles.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at