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.