Anyone who followed Gov. Scott Walker’s election campaign last fall was aware that Wisconsin’s road builders were at the top of the list of his contributors. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that about 150 individual employees of road-building firms contributed $128,859 to Walker’s campaign, along with the $25,000 given by their state association to the Republican Governors’ Association, presumably to help cover the $5 million in anti-Barrett ads run by the RGA.
But what no one knew, or could even guess, until the governor unveiled his biennial budget on March 1 was how quickly and dramatically the road construction interests would see a return on their investments. Or how clearly this would highlight the governor’s true priorities.
In a budget that has drawn national attention for a proposed $834 million cut to K-12 education funding in Wisconsin, and that is being used to justify the need for significant teacher layoffs, salary reductions and an end to public sector collective bargaining, Walker has made his priorities clear for everyone to see. Walker has proposed making cuts to education at least $144 million greater than otherwise needed in order to increase funds for road construction.
This is in addition to the $117 million in corporate tax breaks given in January, and $82 million in corporate tax breaks in the budget itself, all of which increase the need for cuts in education funding.
In Wisconsin, the Transportation Fund is segregated from state’s General Fund. Motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and other smaller revenue sources go into the Transportation Fund to provide money for transportation projects and programs. The Transportation Fund has been healthier than the General Fund in recent years, and Gov. Jim Doyle drew criticism for shifting revenue from the Transportation Fund to reduce the need for cuts in General Fund programs. The General Fund is the source of funding for most state programs, including education and programs for the aging, disabled and low-income individuals.
While claiming “Wisconsin is broke” -- a charge disputed by many -- Walker proposes in his budget to move the cost for public transit from the Transportation Fund into the General Fund, making the General Fund hole $107 million deeper and freeing up the same amount in the Transportation Fund.
At the same time, Walker’s proposal phases in a diversion of vehicle sales tax revenue out of the General Fund and into the Transportation Fund, eventually resulting in 50 percent of all vehicle sales tax going into the Transportation Fund. This amount starts at around $37 million in 2013 and grows to an estimated $200 million when completely phased in.
Further, Walker’s budget proposes bonding authority for another couple hundred million of road-building money, with the debt repayment coming from the General Fund instead of the Transportation Fund. The impact of this is as yet unknown.
So just for starters, in 2013 the General Fund would have to pay $107 million for a transportation program that is currently in the Transportation Fund, while losing $37 million of revenue to the Transportation Fund. In other words, the General Fund deficit would be $144 million greater and Transportation Fund would have an equal amount of freed-up funding to support road construction.
Road construction is a critical state priority, and Wisconsin has a growing list of highway reconstruction needs. But given the potentially crippling impacts of Walker’s budget on K-12 education, Wisconsin citizens deserve a clearer understanding of the choices Walker has made that have put us in this position, and the options that exist for undoing them.
Rod Clark retired in December after almost 37 years with the state, 33 of them with DOT. He is also a former president of the McFarland School Board.