Mary Burke

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke told the State Journal editorial board she doesn't back Gov. Scott Walker's suggestion to replace the gas tax with a sales tax on gas and alternative fuels.

JOHN HART — State Journal

Democratic gubernatorial challenger Mary Burke rejected Gov. Scott Walker’s idea of replacing the gas tax with a sales tax in a State Journal editorial board interview Tuesday.

“The last thing we want to do is have the transportation budget be subject to these wild fluctuations in gas prices,” Burke said. “That would be harmful.”

Neither Burke nor Walker have laid out a detailed proposal for plugging the state’s $680 million projected shortfall in the state’s transportation fund in the 2015-17 budget.

Walker told the State Journal editorial board Monday that he is considering the possibility of eliminating the state’s 31-cent-per-gallon motor vehicle fuel tax and replacing it with a sales tax at the pump, which could also be applied to alternative fuel sources, including possibly electricity for electric cars. He didn’t lay out specifics and stressed that the idea was not a full-fledged proposal.

DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb doesn’t plan to lay out his proposal for addressing long-term transportation costs until after the Nov. 4 election.

Republican legislative leaders also didn’t leap at the chance to comment on Walker’s idea. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Assembly transportation committee chairman Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi; and Senate transportation committee chairman Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment.

Burke said she would scrutinize how much is being spent on major road projects to control costs. She said she would prioritize projects based on “economic development and safety.”

Burke cited a report from the liberal Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group that criticized four major highway projects the state is examining with a potential total price tag of $3 billion. Those include expansions of the Madison Beltline, Interstate 39/90 south of Madison, Interstate 94 in Milwaukee and Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth.

The report said when the I-39-90 lane expansion was conceived, the state projected a 29 percent increase in traffic between 2000 and 2010, but by 2012 traffic volumes had grown 1 percent over the 12 years.

The report also recommended adopting all of the January 2013 recommendations from a bipartisan state transportation commission, which reported last year that if Wisconsin wants to maintain current service, traffic flow and road condition levels under the existing funding system, the state will be short $15.3 billion over the next decade. That’s driven by road construction costs, but also declining gas tax revenue from more fuel-efficient vehicles and fewer miles traveled.

The commission recommended boosting the state’s gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, increasing driver’s license and commercial vehicle registration fees, eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of a vehicle, and adopting a mileage-based registration fee system for passenger vehicles and light trucks.

Asked which of those options she supports for raising more revenue for the transportation fund, Burke said, “I’m actually open to any of them.”

“I would look at those recommendations and look at the people who were involved and get them back together,” Burke said in an interview later Tuesday with reporters. “That’s valuable work I would use as governor to come up with a viable solution to this.”

Walker and legislative Republicans rejected the commission recommendations in the 2013-15 budget, opting instead to increase borrowing and use general tax collections to pay for road projects.

Burke said she opposes increased borrowing and using general fund taxes. She also said she supports a constitutional amendment on the ballot next month that would protect the transportation fund from being used for other purposes.

She, like Walker, also expressed concerns about the administrative costs of a mileage-based registration fee system.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.