Gas tax

Most motorists wouldn't even notice if the state increased its gas tax for the first time in more than a decade to start fixing a backlog of projects and repairs.

AMBER ARNOLD -- State Journal

It’s hard to follow, much less swallow, the Assembly Republicans’ proposal to cut the state gas tax by raising taxes on gas.

Confused? That seems to be the sponsors’ intent: Change so many state charges, credits, rates and rules that the politicians can claim they’re saving hard-working people money even though they’re not.

But don’t blame the Assembly for trying its best to find more funding for Wisconsin’s roads that, according to an audit, are among the worst in the nation. The Assembly is just trying to get a responsible road budget past a governor who is positioning himself for political advantage instead.

Gov. Scott Walker recently threatened to veto any increase in the state gas tax of 30.9 cents per gallon — even though that “tax” is really just a user fee on people who use the roads, and even though it hasn’t been increased in more than a decade. Instead, the Republican governor wants to continue to liberally borrow money for roads to get by.

Gov. Walker criticized his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, for irresponsible state budgeting. But Walker has borrowed more for roads during his first six years in office than Doyle did during his first six years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Assembly Republicans and many Democrats want to responsibly end the borrowing binge. They’re willing to consider a higher gas tax or registration fee, a charge based on mileage, or modern tolling on the interstates.

But so far, Republicans don’t appear willing to override a veto.

So Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and his GOP colleagues in the Assembly tried to appease the governor by bringing in new revenue for roads without raising the gas tax. In fact, they would cut the gas tax by 4.8 cents per gallon. The governor liked the sound of that.

But they also would apply the state sales tax to gas — an idea the governor first floated with the State Journal editorial board in 2014 — which would increase the price per gallon by 12 cents, based on the current state average price at the pumps.

How is that a tax cut?

Kooyenga and Co. say they’ll save people money in other ways. They would reduce the state’s minimum markup on gasoline, condense income tax brackets, and repeal an alternative minimum tax affecting higher-income people.

But the proposal doesn’t stop there. They also would charge hybrid vehicle owners a new fee, let counties charge a transportation sales tax, and eliminate tax credits for working families, renters and married couples.

Now it’s starting to sound like a tax hike again.

Rather than such a convoluted proposal, Republicans should tell their governor they’re going to be honest with the public and propose to simple and fair gas tax increase of several cents per gallon. Lots of other states run by Republicans have raised their gas tax to keep pace with inflation. Even President Donald Trump is talking about raising the federal gas tax for the first time in decades.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to provide Wisconsin with a modern and strong transportation system.