JFC approves GOP transportation plan

WisDOT photo.

Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee approved jacking up fees and eliminating breaks for retailers to help pump $483.7 million of new revenue into transportation over the next two years while borrowing an additional $326.2 million for projects.

That’s in the neighborhood of what Gov. Tony Evers had proposed. But the GOP plan differed in one significant way, rejecting Evers’ call to increase the gas tax by 8 cents a gallon and indexing it for inflation going forward.

Dems on the Joint Finance Committee slammed the GOP move to rely on fees for much of the proposed spending increase rather than the gas tax, saying it would mean putting most of the additional burden on Wisconsin motorists regardless of how much they drive or the value of their vehicle.

And it means the motorists who visit Wisconsin aren’t paying more, while state residents are.

“If you are forced to pay those excessive fees to drive, it’s a tax. It’s a tax,” said state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee. “But the more ridiculous thing is it’s a tax on Wisconsinites, the people we are sent here to represent.”

The Joint Finance Committee approved the motion 11-5 with Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, joining Dems in opposing it. Stroebel has been highly critical of Evers appointing Craig Thompson, the former head of the Transportation Development Association, to lead DOT.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in our Transportation secretary, who used to be a road builder lobbyist,” he said.

Evers ran on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” a line he has trotted out frequently in pressing Republicans to support his plan. Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said the GOP plan matches Evers in many areas, but “fixes more damn roads” than his budget proposed with the investment in local projects.

He also said drivers would only be hit by the title transfer fee when purchasing a vehicle compared to every time they fill their tanks if lawmakers had gone with a gas tax hike. He mocked Dem’s concerns about the fee increases being regressive while supporting a gas tax hike.

“What do you think the gas tax does? These same folks pay that every time they fill up,” Born said.

The plan also includes $326.3 million in bonding, which would be slightly less than the $338.3 million that Evers had proposed, including $45 million in general fund supported borrowing for passenger rail.

The GOP plan includes:

*more than doubling the vehicle transfer fee by $95 to $164.50, raising $272.9 million. The highest fee in the Midwest is currently $95 in Illinois, and Evers had proposed an increase of $10;

*increasing the auto registration fee by $10 to $85, raising $65.3 million;

*modifying the registration fee for certain weight classes to a uniform $100. That includes raising the $75 fee on cars weighing 4,500 pounds to 7,999 pounds, while dropping it for vehicles weighing more than that. It includes reducing the fee for vehicles weighing at least 10,000 pounds from the current $155 to $100. The move overall would generate $18.5 million;

*changing the definition of a hybrid-electric vehicle to collect an additional $11.3 million;

*transferring one cent from the petroleum inspection fund to the transportation fund, a move of nearly $2.3 million;

*eliminating the refund on fuel taxes to vendors to compensate for shrinkage and evaporation losses, generating $7.3 million;

*eliminating the 1.35 percent administrative allowance that licensed motor vehicle suppliers may deduct when remitting the gas tax, resulting in an additional $19.7 million.

The motion also would create a one-time $90 million general fund appropriation to help local governments pay for road projects. The move would come on top of the existing $87.8 million transfer from the general fund — comprised of income, corporate and sales taxes — to the transportation fund.

The proposal comes on the heels of 10 Senate Republicans — including all six caucus members on JFC — proposing a one-time $133.6 million infusion of GPR, but just for counties and towns. The motion would include cities and villages.

Dems knocked the GPR move, with Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee calling it “the bait and switch” after Republicans approved a $500 million boost to K-12 education — which is funded by GPR — after saying the state couldn’t afford the guv’s $1.4 billion plan.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff charged Republicans were struggling to find a sustainable solution to fund transportation.

“Raiding our state coffers and making Wisconsinites foot the bill for the rest instead of making out-of-state drivers pay their fair share isn’t the long-term solution Wisconsinites are asking for,” she said.

Republicans also included $2.5 million for a study on moving to a system that implements a fee system based on the number of miles driven, along with several policy items.

That includes a proposed new office in DOT to work on designing highway projects more cheaply and placing limits on local restrictions on the operation of a quarry. Then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2017 vetoed from the budget similar restrictions, but JFC Republicans defended the move as a way to cut costs in delivering aggregate stone to road projects.

The policy proposals also includes a provision to limit the security DOT’s Dignitary Protection Unit could provide Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes over 2019-21 to what it paid to protect him and his predecessor Republican Rebecca Kleefisch in 2017-19.

The move comes on the heels of WisPolitics.com reporting that DPU had logged nine times as many hours providing Barnes protection during his first two months in office as it had for Kleefisch over all of 2018. The costs for Kleefisch were $4,370 in 2018, while the agency spent $36,662 in the first two months of 2019 protecting Barnes. The records WisPolitics.com didn’t include a breakdown by fiscal year.