David Michael Miller
Both Wisconsin’s public education system and its transportation network need reinvestment. It’s a mistake to take from one to feed the other.
But that’s pretty much the way the state budget debate is shaping up. We will have a better idea when Gov. Scott Walker formally introduces his budget in a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s a quick recap.
The deficiencies in Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure are well documented. By some measures we have the third-most-deteriorated road system in the country, and we underinvest in mass transit and in facilities for walking and biking.
In 2013 the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission recommended several hundred million dollars in transportation tax increases to pay for improvements in roads, bridges, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. But those recommendations went nowhere with a Republican governor and legislature. Instead, major highway projects were delayed, and borrowing was increased beyond sustainable levels. Nobody thinks the current trajectory can be maintained for much longer.
Over the same period the UW-System took a $250 million cut to its budget while K-12 funding is still recovering from the deep cuts in the wake of Act 10.
The governor and some legislators have promised to start returning some dollars to education, though in the case of the UW that may come with restrictions that have the effect of favoring business, engineering and professional schools over general education in the humanities and social sciences.
Up until now transportation funding has been stuck in political gridlock. While Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) has been open to a variety of tax increases, the governor has been adamant in his opposition. But he did leave the door open a crack by suggesting that he wouldn’t stand in the way of transportation tax increases (probably in gas taxes and vehicle registration fees) if there were corresponding tax cuts somewhere else.
Last week that crack seemed to widen into an open door when new state revenue estimates suggested that tax cuts might be possible. The speaker said that Assembly Republicans would propose $300 million in unspecified tax cuts and, presumably, a similar amount in gas tax, vehicle registration or other transportation tax increases.
Here’s the problem with that idea: It essentially means that $300 million that could have gone for public education or natural resources or health care or any of the other myriad things funded from general tax revenues will instead be shifted mostly to build roads. Worse, it will mostly be shifted to build big roads in urban areas because the governor had already proposed increases in local road programs even with his no-tax-increase budget.
And it gets still worse when we consider that when Republicans cut taxes they always cut them disproportionately for the rich. So, the bottom line is that rural Wisconsinites who must drive more just to get around will end up paying more in the gas tax while any income tax cut they might get is not likely to make up for it. And because aid for their local schools won’t increase as much as it would have had that $300 million not been shifted over to big road construction, they will be short-changed even more.
I don’t blame Vos for this. My observation is that he is what counts these days as a moderate conservative who is trying to navigate the political waters as best he can. From a liberal perspective you could do far worse. But the governor has hemmed him in and set the parameters of the debate. The result could be a missed opportunity to improve our transportation network and our public education system at the same time.