Walker open to gas tax hike to capture federal infrastructure money

WisDOT photo.

Gov. Scott Walker Thursday opened the door to a gas tax hike to grab a piece of a proposed federal infrastructure plan months after ruling out that option for the 2017-19 state budget.

Critics immediately seized on the comments to accuse Walker of flip flopping.

But Walker insisted to reporters he wasn’t changing positions on a gas tax hike, saying his standard continued to be that any revenue increase would have to be accompanied by an overall reduction in other taxes.

Assembly Republicans last spring proposed a plan they said would raise transportation revenues while cutting the overall tax burden in 2017-19 compared to current law at the time. But Walker insisted it did not meet his standard and he saw no compelling need to raise transportation revenues in the budget because there was ample money to invest in transportation and priorities such as education.

“But the bottom line for me on any of this is it doesn’t mean we’re going to do it,” Walker said after delivering a speech at the Monona Terrace in Madison on economic development. “It just means the only way we would consider it is if there was an actual reduction in the overall tax burden in the state of Wisconsin.”

Walker’s comments come as the Trump administration considers an infrastructure plan that would spend $200 billion in federal money to leverage $1.3 trillion in spending by cities, states and private companies.

Walker noted traditionally the feds have picked up 80 percent of the costs when partnering with states on transportation projects and hoped “key players” in Washington, D.C., who know of Wisconsin’s transportation needs would have a say in the final product that may pass Congress.

Listen to Walker’s comments:
https://soundcloud.com/wispolitics/160416_003a

Assembly Republicans repeatedly clashed with Walker on transportation funding during budget negotiations this summer.

Asked about Walker’s comments, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement his caucus has long advocated for “creative solutions” such as reducing the income tax while raising transportation revenues.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, who authored the Assembly GOP transportation proposal last year, said he was willing to work with the Walker administration on a solution. Still, he defended the tax impact of his plan, which called for moving the state toward a flat income tax by 2029 while making a series of changes to transportation revenues. That includes lowering the gas tax and repealing minimum markup on fuel, but adding the sales tax.

Kooyenga said his calculations pegged the overall impact of the plan as a $250 million reduction in taxes accomplished, in part, by including some cuts Walker proposed.

Kooyenga said he’d consider using the plan as a blueprint for a new proposal next session.

“The concepts behind this provide an opportunity for us to continue reforming our tax code and lower the tax burden while improving our infrastructure,” Kooyenga said.

Dems knocked what they said was another election year conversion on an issue.

“Where was Gov. Walker’s willingness to lead on transportation funding when his budget passed under five months ago?” asked Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.

Like Shilling, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, knocked Republicans for what he said was an unwillingness to responsibly fund transportation needs.

“At this point, it’s hard to imagine any group with less credibility on transportation infrastructure than Wisconsin Republicans,” he said.

Walker’s comments also come as some Milwaukee-area Republicans pushed to get I-94 east-west back on track.

The bill would direct the Department of Transportation to find $25 million in savings that would then be used to move the project forward and get it back in line for federal funding, said JFC Co-chair Alberta Darling, one of the co-sponsors.

The bill also would prohibit DOT from proceeding on the project unless it received federal funding or the Joint Finance Committee took action.

Darling said her caucus would have to mull over whether it would be open to a gas tax hike.

“I’m not going to automatically say a gas tax is the way to go,” said Darling, R-River Hills. “I think that has to be something we go out and talk to our constituents about, but I think we have to have a big picture for our transportation (needs).”

Walker said some leaders in Milwaukee oppose the project and have talked about the possibility of a lawsuit, which could cause a delay. He added a lot of people in the area “would like a break” from construction with the Zoo Interchange nearing completion.

“Certainly we’re willing to move projects up,” Walker said. “The question is of all the projects we have in the state, is I-94 the right place to put that, or are there other projects that have a higher priority?”

Shilling questioned why GOP lawmakers were introducing the bill now when they had the chance to include funding for the projection in the budget they approved just four months ago.

“Republicans need to wake up and realize they have failed to lead on the issues impacting Wisconsin families,” she said.

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