The Anti-Gas Tax Gang
Why just five Republican naysayers could kill a gas tax hike.
UrbanMilwaukee’s Bruce Murphy recently wrote of a shift in historical GOP support of funding highways. His piece featured this headline and subhead: “Why Republicans Hate The Gas Tax — Once they promoted this user fee, now they’d rather roads fall apart. Why?”
Murphy’s piece offered insight into the history of transportation finance in Wisconsin. However, owing to the inner workings of legislative politics, a more apt headline might have been: “How A Minority Of Senate Republicans Blocked A Gas Tax Increase.”
In passing a biennial budget, if the Legislature is controlled by a single party — Democrat or Republican — the votes of the minority party usually don’t matter. The majority party seeks to remain unified enough to not need minority party votes. Doing so prevents bargaining, i.e., policy concessions, that the majority does not want to make.
This dynamic gives disproportionate influence to a minority faction within the majority party. That’s what happened this year. Specifically, a handful of Republican senators made it clear that they would not vote for a gas tax increase even though, I contend, a majority of GOP legislators would have done so. Rather than seek Democrat votes to overcome the GOP minority, Republican leaders yielded to the Senate faction, a group that included Duey Stroebel and Tom Tiffany two key members of the Joint Finance Committee. Other skeptics of raising the gas tax include Steve Nass, David Craig, and Chris Kapenga.
There is much to commend in Murphy’s analysis, which begins:
America has lots of taxes, but few come so close to a pure user fee as the gas tax. Philosophically, you’d think Republicans would embrace a tax that operates close to free market principles: you tax the drivers who wear out the roads and use that money to repair the highways.
It’s also a pro-business measure because businesses need good transportation. On the federal level the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has backed raising federal fuel taxes by 25 cents. On the state level the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce — a bulwark of the Republican Party — has supported a gas tax hike of five cents a gallon.
In the eight years before Tony Evers’ election, when Republicans controlled state government, the minority Senate faction had an ace-in-the-hole: Scott Walker. As Murphy writes, “nobody personified” opposition to a gas tax increase more than Walker. Rather than raise the gas tax to meet clear needs, the former governor instead led the GOP Legislature on a borrowing binge. Republicans thus doubled the share of gas tax revenue required for debt service and simultaneously put the brakes on plans for timely reconstruction of freeways. Nice work.
Evers’ election put the governor’s office in favor of a higher gas tax. Most Republican legislators were open to that, but the minority faction of GOP senators said “no way” and prevailed. The unwritten rules of legislative budget-writing gave them the leverage they needed.
Going forward there are two big questions.
First, in the immediate future, are there 17 GOP Senate votes to pass the budget reported out last week by the Joint Finance Committee? It includes more than $400 million in new transportation revenue (and exempted out-of-state drivers by not increasing the gas tax). While the new revenue is a fraction of what’s needed to meet documented need, if three of nineteen senate Republicans balk, even this plan will stall.
Second, once this budget is settled, will Governor Evers provide the leadership necessary to get Wisconsin out of its transportation hole? The votes are there for new transportation revenue, subject to a bipartisan strategy that circumvents the minority Senate faction.