The Contrarian

Conservatives Should Favor Gas Tax Hike

And many do. But a minority of legislators are calling the shots.

By - Aug 22nd, 2017 11:03 am
Gas price.

Gas price.

There is a clear conservative case to be made for raising the gas tax.

But with the idea dead in 2017-19, why discuss it now? Because the need for new revenue will be even more apparent when a short-term budget agreement is reached. It won’t provide the funds needed to maintain state highways.

Governor Walker’s opposition to a gas tax hike long ago made this outcome a certainty. As the Journal Sentinel’s Ernst-Ulrich Franzen explains, current negotiations are simply about “how much to borrow and how much to delay; in other words, how far down the road they’re going to kick the can.”

As a result, in less than two years the Legislature and Governor will face an even longer list of transportation challenges. Outstate roads will be in worse condition. Plans for rebuilding worn out freeways will remain in limbo (save for possible Foxconn-inspired work in Racine County).

The downward spiral will continue until the Legislature and Governor own up to the need for new transportation revenue. The conservative rationale for doing so is straightforward.

The Policy

Conservatives can traditionally find common ground in support of policies that strengthen the economy. In their eyes, profit is a good thing. They put on a pedestal risk-taking entrepreneurs who put their money where their mouth is. After all, where else would jobs come from?

Manufacturing, farming, and tourism are the bedrock of the state’s economy. There are almost half a million manufacturing jobs, nearly 80,000 farms, and almost 200,000 tourism-related jobs.

When it comes to transportation, a simple pact exists between government and private employers. The private sector makes stuff and provides jobs. The government’s role? Provide the infrastructure that moves goods to market, workers to jobs, and customers to businesses.

The state isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

And then there is debt. Conservatives rightly are wary of excessive borrowing. Yet under Governor Walker, Republicans who took control in 2010 have added nearly $3 billion in new transportation debt. This extended a borrowing binge launched by that well-known conservative, Jim Doyle.

It gets worse. Recognizing the transportation fund’s unsustainable debt trajectory, the GOP now follows Doyle’s “leadership” in tapping the general fund for highway debt.

So, on clear policy merits, a higher gas tax is needed to meet a conservative government’s commitment to employers and to blunt the credit card binge of the last decade.

The Political

Clearly, Governor Walker and a faction of GOP legislators are unpersuaded. The “no tax increase” siren song has a powerful allure.

What eventually will get their attention is serious political pressure. To date, the state’s two largest business organizations have sent muted, and sometimes contradictory, messages. Ditto the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.

Foxconn might provide a wake-up call. Almost overnight the Governor’s opposition to SE Wisconsin freeway projects evaporated when it came to I-94 in Racine County. Perhaps the farmers, manufacturers, and tourism employers will have noticed. Perhaps they will stiffen their spines and forcefully remind the Governor and Legislature they should not be penalized for already being here.

A gas tax hike remains heresy for one group of Wisconsin legislators and commentators. Its members assign to themselves the right to determine and allocate conservative credentials. But those who don’t think the state should hold up its end of the bargain with employers undercut their supposed commitment to a strong economy. On this issue, they are conservative in name only.

25 thoughts on “The Contrarian: Conservatives Should Favor Gas Tax Hike”

  1. Jason Troll says:

    More than one-fifth of Milwaukee’s residential streets are in poor condition, and even with the new wheel tax, the city would have to boost spending by up to $780 million over the next 25 years to improve them and prevent further deterioration, auditors reported Tuesday.

    In response to the audit, Ald. Jim Bohl said late Tuesday that he would call for the state to let the city levy its own gas tax and use the money for street work.

    The audit from Comptroller W. Martin “Wally” Morics’ office found that 214 miles of residential streets, or nearly 21% of the total, were in the worst shape, as measured by a city Department of Public Works scale.

    Auditors also found that the department is taking an average of 106 years to repave or replace local streets as of this year. That’s down from the 2005 peak of 163 years, but it’s still more than twice the streets’ expected lifespan.

    To deal with the problem, auditors recommended

  2. George Mitchell says:

    A deferred maintenance backlog exists in many, perhaps most, Wisconsin communities. Ditto for the state highway network.

    It grows each year. There is a compounding snowball effect Harder and harder to get back to “normal.”

  3. Paul Trotter says:

    Troll – so what did they recommend? And do you have a link for your information.

  4. Paul Trotter says:

    Let’s be clear. The only reason we don’t have an increase in the gas tax is because Scott Walker wants another talking point for his reelection campaign. He does not lead for the citizens for WI. Walker is destroying our state just to get elected.

  5. George Mitchell says:

    Pau, this is 100% accurate: “The only reason we don’t have an increase in the gas tax is because Scott Walker wants another talking point for his reelection campaign.”

  6. Sam says:

    It’s poor governance all around. It was poor governance before Scott Walker and it’s poor governance with Scott Walker. People want good roads and cry when they have to actually pay for them (with gas taxes, wheel taxes, registration fees, etc.). State representatives are too scared of losing their jobs to force the true cost upon us.

    Make people pay the true cost of maintenance for existing roads and they will start to scrutinize the endless expansion projects.

  7. George Mitchell says:

    Two fateful decisions were made in the last decade. First, the state began the essential and unavoidable task of rebuilding Eisenhower era freeways. Then, it froze the gas tax (previously indexed to inflation). Since then Doyle and now Walker have gone on a borrowing binge in a futile effort to make up for stagnant gas tax revenue. Unsustainable.

  8. Paul Trotter says:

    The gas tax was frozen largely in part because of Mark Belling. LIght rail to the suburbs was also killed by his show. Lawmakers like Voss, Fitzgerald and Walker are pressured by right wing talk radio and Grover Norquist. Both Fitzgerald and Walker signed a pledge to Norquist. It’s shameful leadership. Their first loyalty should be to the citizens of WI who favor a gas tax.

  9. George Mitchell says:

    Paul, it was frozen almost entirely because Sen.Tom Reynolds held the budget hostage. He singlehandedly froze the tax. All the candidates for Governor at the time wilted. Doyle signed the freeze. Walker and Green supported it.

  10. revtlee says:

    And somebody better start thinking about alternatives to the gas tax as almost every car manufacturer is now talking about and beginning the development of electric or alternative fuel vehicles. These are no longer figments of Elon Musk’s imagination but a real alternative and real soon! Maybe it is time to get serious about toll roads as much as i despise the Illinois’ experience. I realize the legislature and the Governor hardly look beyond the next election but that cloud which will produce rain upon the gas tax horizon is the child of Tesla and it’s non-gasoline powered spawn!!

  11. George Mitchell says:

    Tolling the entire WI I-system makes complete sense. It would require a substantial change in federal law/policy. Such a change requires gubernatorial leadership.

    You are correct that new revenue streams are needed to reflect the realities you cite. Such changes require gubernatorial leadership.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    How about a vehicle-miles-traveled tax?

  13. George Mitchell says:

    Clearly a possibility. Devil’s in details. I believe there will be no progress until employers bring the hammer down on Walker

  14. Paul Trotter says:

    Thanks George – it was also my understanding that Belling put pressure on the lawmakers to freeze. I recall him bragging about this but I certainly could be mistaken. We now see Belling putting pressure on lawmakers to sign this Foxconn deal.

  15. Paul Trotter says:

    Walker talks about WI – Open for Business. Infrastructure is critical for business. Voss will of course get his $250 million in borrowed money to finish the 94 south in his area but the zoo and 94 east and west will stall because of it. There will be consequences for this shortsighted decision. George – lets hope employers who need good modern transportation to transport their goods and worker speak out. It’s time to take Walker out and find a governor who leads for our state and not for himself. We slimply can’t go another 4 years under his fail leadership.

  16. George Mitchell says:

    i distanctly recall John Gard (correctly) predicting that freezing the gas tax would lead to the current situation.

    While I happen to agree with Mark Belling on several issues, his views on the state transportation issue have been goofy for many years.

  17. George Mitchell says:

    Vos is smart to use Foxconn to get 94 N-S back on track. 250m is less than half of what is needed to finish the work.

    The transportation finance issue is the least complicated policy facing the state. It is pure math. There is not enough money coming in to do the work needed.

    Walker is quite likely to be re-elected. The big question is whether MMAC, WMC, and the Farm Bureau will take him on when it comes to roads.

  18. revtlee says:

    And if any of these dare to put institutional needs (i.e. improved transportation) before ideology(i.e. no new taxes/no tax increases), it will be interesting to see what Beiling and his “ilk” do! And how the governor deals with it.

  19. George Mitchell says:

    The major employers in the state have given the Governor a pass. Perhaps their thinking is that he likely will be re-elected (true) so don’t get on his wrong side. How long will they maintain that position? Beats me.

  20. Jason TRoll says:

    What other taxes, fees and licenses should we tack on with inflation ? The Assembly, Senate and governor at anytime can ask for an up and down vote. The Republicans that vote for a gas tax will most likely be primary-ed as they should.

  21. WIfather2000 says:

    If 1 semi truck causes as much damage to OUR roads as 10,000 cars why, according to ‘Free Market’ principles aren’t the republicans making the trucking industry pay their fair share for their highway usage, abuse and destruction, instead of the 35% they now pay?

  22. michael says:

    WIfather2000 – Agreed. Additionally, such a move would be absolutely transformative for SE Wisconsin, where we’ve let our remarkable endowment of rail and water freight infrastructure completely rot, while simultaneously subsidizing a trucking industry that would rather do business in the south and west versus anywhere near cities or water.

  23. Rich Eggleston says:

    George, I ddfon’t think borrowing for highways began under Jim Doyle. I don’t have the fiscal bureau memos in front of me, but I suspect the practice just accelerated under Doyle (who was subject to political pressure not to raise taxes because the other guys would make a campaign issue of it) and began much earlier. Remember when goverernors could boast they didn’t raise general taxes, never mind “fees?” After one of Tommy Thompson’s budget addresses, I quoted a lobbyist by name as saying, “He didn’t use the “t” word, but he sure used the “f” word.


  24. George Mitchell says:


    Correct, it did not begin under Doyle. It rapidly escalated under him and Walker. That’s why the share of transportation fund revenue for debt service has gone from about 7% to nearly 20%. What did begin under Doyle was use of general fund to support a portion of highway debt. Walker has continued that practice as well.

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