Walker speaks on roads budget

Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a news conference in Madison in June. Walker is opposed to major tax and fee increases to fund road construction, but has shown support for a new fee on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Scott Bauer/Associated Press

Practically and politically, it makes sense that Republicans in control of the state Legislature have warmed to the idea of a fee on hybrid and electric vehicles to help close an up to $1 billion shortfall in the fund that pays for road construction.

Owners of such vehicles are paying less than their fair share because they pay little to nothing in state gasoline taxes — a main source of transportation funding. They also tend to be of a more urban and environmentally conscious persuasion, and the GOP doesn’t win elections in cities or among environmentalists anyway.

Still, squeezing more out of city-dwelling believers in mainstream climate science isn’t enough to cover Wisconsin’s road needs now or in the future — which is why Republicans might want to consider something more novel: a fee on foreign-made vehicles that would almost certainly be an even bigger hit with their party’s current Make America Great Again mob.

At best, adding a hybrid/electric fee to the state’s menu of road-funding sources brings more parity to motorists’ overall failure to pay for roads. It would no longer be the case that any particular class of motorists is paying less than every other class of motorist. It would be that every class of motorist is paying less than what a decent road system requires.

Wisconsinites don’t deserve the lion’s share of blame for this unwillingness to pay for roads. A December poll by the state business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, found 49 percent of respondents favored a gas tax hike for roads, while 48 percent opposed it.

A Marquette Law School poll in June found roads were respondents’ third-highest priority for increased state spending. For those who considered roads their highest priority, 46 percent were willing to pay higher taxes for them, while 51 percent were not.

Hiking taxes to adequately fund roads isn’t political suicide. And yet Gov. Scott Walker’s been opposed to tax and fee increases that would create a reliable stream of funding for roads — probably because he’s planning to run for re-election or for president again and wants to look tough on taxes.

Republicans who think there is revenue to be raised and political cover to be found in forcing electric and hybrid drivers to pay more might also want to create a second fee targeting vehicles based on how American they are.

The federal government and American University already put out reports on this. Factors they consider include where a vehicle is assembled, where the research and development leading to its creation were done, and where the engine and other major components were made.

A 2016 Buick Enclave, for example, gets a 90 percent “total domestic content” rating from American University. A Kia Sedona is about as American as bibimbap, or 4 percent.

In short, raise money for roads by tacking extra registration fees onto un-American vehicles; taxes paid on wages and products overseas aren’t adding to Wisconsin’s road fund, after all.

And it would be an America First move in an age when a Republican president is threatening to start trade wars and thinks he can bring vast numbers of manufacturing jobs back home.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.