Over the last half century, Wisconsin governors have a mixed record when it comes to leaving a real mark on state government. Those with a lasting impact include Warren Knowles, Pat Lucey, Tommy Thompson, and Scott Walker. In contrast, the imprint of Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl, and Jim Doyle is of a lesser order.
Will Tony Evers be consequential? How could he make a real difference? His campaign mainly offered a formulaic liberal platform, i.e., shoveling boatloads of money to K-12 school districts, blowing up school choice, expanding health care entitlements without real reform in medical care delivery and insurance, and reducing prison populations by thousands — up to 50 percent. Aside from the pros and cons of those ideas, some hard facts stand in his way: namely, a GOP legislature and a state fiscal situation that is more constrained than many observers appreciate.
Transportation finance is an area where Evers could have a real impact. With executive leadership, Republican and Democratic support could be found for meaningful reform.
The last eight years are notable as a period of disinvestment in the state’s transportation network. The condition of state highways has declined. A bipartisan consensus that once existed on rebuilding Eisenhower-era freeways collapsed. Making matters worse, a multi-billion dollar increase in debt has doubled the share of gas tax revenue devoted to bond payments.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the stark contrast between the condition of the transportation infrastructure and the utility power grid. When a switch is flipped, the lights go on in every sector of the state. Name the last time a business has curtailed operations because it could not power up an office or factory. Compare that to the well-documented costs incurred daily by weight limits on rural bridges and congestion on deteriorated freeway bottlenecks.
What explains the reliability of the state’s power grid? Why are the lights on? Why are homes and buildings warm in winter?
A principal reason is that regulated utilities have had the ability — through a Public Service Commission accountable to elected officials — to finance necessary capital costs. A knowledgeable observer provided me with the following data downloaded from the PSC: the average monthly residential electric bill grew from $39 in 2001 to $70 in 2018. That’s an 80 percent increase over nearly two decades. During the same period, the state’s gas tax is up 17 percent and has been flat since indexing ended in 2006.
It’s little wonder one system is reliable and the other is increasingly not. As a veteran former legislator explained to me, “Brownouts would be the order of the day if the Legislature directly set utility rates.”
Perhaps I have missed it, but I am unaware of any legislator or “think tank” opponent of a higher gas tax who has railed against utility rates.
Is the PSC model worth considering when it comes to transportation fund revenue? If not, what other options exist to provide a reliable source of revenue for reversing the record of disinvestment in state highways and transit?
Governor-elect Evers has the opportunity, right out of the gate, to take the lead and propose fundamental reform in Wisconsin’s system of transportation finance. As with virtually every major reform in state government, the leadership of the governor is necessary to get the ball rolling. In this instance there is a bipartisan group of legislators who are ready to stop kicking the can down the road.