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 Scott Walker’s opposition to a gas tax hike long ago made this outcome a certainty. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Ernie 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 the 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 the governor own up to the need for new transportation revenue. The conservative rationale for doing so is straightforward.
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 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, former Governor 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.
Clearly, 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 the 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.