Why I’m voting no on the Wisconsin transportation referendum

All attention is focused on Mary Burke and Scott Walker, so I didn’t even realize there’s a state ballot proposition in next week’s election.  And it’s not a trivial one, either.

Question 1: “Creation of a Transportation Fund. Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?”

Mary Burke supports this.  So does Governor Walker.  The bill to put the referendum on the ballot was passed by large majorities of both houses.  “Yes on 1” has an organized campaign and a snappy website; as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as “No on 1.”

But I’m voting no.  I don’t expect every dime of people’s property taxes to support upkeep of residential infrastructure.  I don’t think the sales tax should be restricted to promoting Wisconsin retail.  I think money is money and it’s the job of the legislature, not the constitution, to decide how money can best be raised and where in the state it’s most needed.

The amendment prevents gas taxes and vehicle registration fees from being used to fund schools and hospitals and police, but it doesn’t prevent other revenue sources from being raided to fund our highways and bridges.  And that’s what’s actually happening right now; the current administration takes $133 million from the general fund to fund transportation in the current budget.  I’m not sure why transportation, out of all state projects, ought to enjoy a special status:  allowed to draw money from the general fund, but constitutionally prohibited from releasing any back.

The Yes on 1 FAQ points out that many states around the country have constitutional language enforcing segregation of the the transportation fund.  I looked at a few of these, and it’s true!  But those provisions are of a rather different nature.  California’s constitutional provision requires that 25% of the money go to public transportation.  In Minnesota, it’s 40%.  Our referendum has no such restriction, requiring only that the money go to things funded by the DoT.  The Yes on 1 FAQ points out, correctly, that “Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund is the sole source of state funding for the entire transportation system – highways, air, rail, transit, harbors, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.”  Pretty weak sauce — the fund will not be prohibited from funding other forms of transportation.  Unless an enterprising governor splits off transit into a separate department, that is.  (Ohio’s Constitution, by the way, already forbids gas taxes and license fees from aiding mass transit.)

The amendment establishes one class of spending and taxing as privileged above all the rest.  It shouldn’t be part of our state constitution.

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6 thoughts on “Why I’m voting no on the Wisconsin transportation referendum

  1. baowulf says:

    $133 billion shifted by the Walker administration to transportation from the general fund doesn’t seem possible. Did you possibly mean $133 million instead? I agree with your article otherwise.

  2. JSE says:

    Ha, sorry! Fixed.

  3. Aaron says:

    Well, you’ve convinced me!

  4. morgan says:

    Every time I hit a pothole I am reminded of the times when the gas tax fund WAS raided in the past. The money was used for OTHER things. People who live in cities and don’t drive are not required to fund the roads.

    The tax was established with the understanding that tax would keep roads and bridges in good condition. That has NOT happened. Politicians are too free and easy with adding a tax and then using it for some other pet project.

    If ever the gas tax is not sufficient to maintain the highways then they can raise that tax to cover it and I will assist in paying it every time I fill my tank. But this is a tax I can control by limiting my driving and by which vehicle I choose to operate. Vehicles that are the heaviest and created the most wear on the highways also consume the most fuel and therefore pay the most in taxes. People who drive the average car the most miles also pay more in taxes for highway upkeep. People who come from out of state and drive on our highways help pay the tax every time they fill up. So in a way, that gas tax is probably one of the fairest forms of taxation.

    The notion that all taxes should go into a slush fund that the pols can use as needed has no safeguards against abuse. That is why I see this a good start at holding politicians to their promises and just maybe one day a balanced budget.

  5. phil says:

    Well written Morgan!

  6. Richard Séguin says:

    I have a hard time getting excited about constitutional protection of gas tax money when another and far more important special tax, Social Security, has no similar protection.

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