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Dave lives in Bay View and is a graduate student at Marquette University. He is a student of politics and history, a skeptic, optimist, and writer, among other things.

Yes, I would like a car wash, and to help pay for the Zoo Interchange

gas tax, walker, doyle, transportation

Next week Wisconsin’s state fuel tax would have automatically adjusted for inflation, as it did every April 1st until 2006. But it’s not 2006 and it hasn’t been for a few years. You’ll remember that as of 2006 we didn’t need any more roads or bridges.

Or wait.

The fuel tax is a fixed $0.309 per gallon, not a percentage of gas prices, so its value decreases with regular inflation. Governor Doyle signed the law passed by the Republican legislature that repealed the automatic inflation adjustments, but recently he said, “I think [the automatic increases] served us well for a long period of time but that was eliminated a few years ago, and that's one reason that we're in the difficult spot we're in." Are we in a difficult spot?

Only when we’re driving through the Zoo Interchange heading downtown.

Yesterday, the northbound overpass there was shut down because of “dangerous deterioration.” The Journal Sentinel reported that “inspections of the bridge Thursday night revealed severe cracking, and [DOT bridge overseer Beth] Cannestra feared heavy traffic could cause it to collapse onto the eastbound freeway below.” Which is of course, a problem.

A former head of the state Transportation Department said last month, “’Automatic tolling will come some day,’ and not soon enough,” according to the Journal Sentinel. And he “not[ed] that gas taxes alone won't generate enough money to rebuild the aging freeway system and support the transit needs in the southeast part of the state.”

Wisconsin depends on fewer sources for transportation funding than any other state. And if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll notice that having perilously few revenue sources is a theme here. As high gas prices motivate people to drive fewer miles and more fuel efficient cars, the use of scarce and carbon rich oil is reduced, which is nice. But buying fewer gallons of gas compounds the problem of depending on a fixed gas tax for transportation revenue.

In case you didn’t see this coming, Scott Walker endorsed repealing the automatic increases before Doyle signed the measure. Walker was running for governor in 2006, until his amazing fundraising receipts made the state’s computer explode.

What makes the gas tax different from, say, property taxes, is that the gas tax is supposed to fund something specific: transportation infrastructure. By pretending to cut the property tax, you are denying funds to pretty much everything because the property tax is the workhorse of revenue in Milwaukee. And denying funds to everything may be your political objective. But allowing the gas tax to fall behind the rate of inflation denies funds specifically to transportation. And if that’s your policy objective, I’m confused.

If the tax is too high, let’s change it and let that new level adjust with inflation. Keeping it frozen at its 2006 level is not a solution. Recently, the Governor of Idaho, whose state gas tax has not increased in fourteen years summarized their problem by saying, “we are trying to accomplish 2009 goals with 1996 dollars.”


The last time Wisconsin's gas tax was adjusted for inflation.
(Photo by Corvair Owner, used under Creative Commons license) http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeross/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

Some people refuse to raise taxes under any circumstances, even when it’s not really raising them, but adjusting them for inflation. By requiring an annual vote for an increase to match inflation, the legislature and Governor Doyle were effectively preventing the tax from being raised regularly, because those annual tax increase votes ain’t gonna happen. And of course, they ain’t happened.

The gas tax is regressive, eating up a larger percentage of your income the poorer you are. But that could be offset by a gas tax rebate for everyone who registers a vehicle, or finely tuned rebates calculated on the Wisconsin income tax return. Either way, a gas tax is an effective tool to encourage vehicle efficiency and fuel conservation while providing dedicated funding to transportation from its users. 

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