Rarely have legislators fought so hard…for so little.

Given transportation ground rules set by Governor Scott Walker — and his recent comments to the Assembly GOP caucus — two things are clear:

  1. The debate now roiling the Capitol won’t make a meaningful dent in the gap between stagnant gas tax revenue and documented transportation needs.
  2. The exact same issues that underlie the current stalemate again will confront the Legislature in January 2019.

After ruling out a gas tax increase in the current session, the governor last month told the Assembly GOP that, if re-elected, future transportation budgets will resemble the one he proposed earlier this year.  Walker doubled down on the gas tax, saying he would oppose an increase in what would be his third term.

By pledging to veto a gas tax hike, the governor has reduced the scope of debate to amounts that might sound large but in fact don’t approach well-documented needs.  

For example, a proposed per-mile truck fee (on life-support as of last Friday) would merely restore highway funding to the inadequate level of 2015-17. That would lessen but not stop the continued growth of state highways in poor condition.  

As for tolling, current federal law would limit it to a single individual corridor in the state’s interstate system.  

Another idea — $350 million in still more borrowing — would be the latest in the  one-time infusions of highway debt that the GOP has relied on since 2011. It’s ironic that chest-thumping “conservatives” who oppose a higher gas tax have supported a multi-billion dollar borrowing spree. While they — and Governor Walker — talk of “living within our means,” the debt binge tells a very different story.

The “base budget” bargaining position advanced by Assembly GOP leaders is a direct challenge to the “live within our means” sound bite. It essentially is Walker’s proposed budget shorn of new debt.   

This base budget is “laughable” to its detractors because it will force curtailment of some current and future projects. In other words, if forced to rely only on stagnant gas tax revenue, the current highway program is unsustainable. Only by pulling out the credit card once again can those projects go forward. In contrast, Assembly Republicans argue a fundamentally conservative concept. Namely, don’t incur new debt without including the means to repay it.  

When the dust settles on the current debate, as it eventually will, ignore references to “breakthroughs” that suggest anything approaching a long-term solution. Walker long ago took that prospect off the table.