WI Moves Toward Constitutional Change to Protect Transportation Funds

Published February 7, 2013

The Wisconsin Legislature is edging closer to asking voters whether to amend the state constitution to ensure transportation-related revenue stays in the transportation fund.

After years of raiding the transportation fund to pay for other programs, the legislature last session passed a joint resolution that would block future lawmakers from doing the same.

That puts the legislature one step away from asking Wisconsinites whether the state constitution should be amended to ensure that transportation-related revenue—from levies such as vehicle registration fees and the gas tax—stays in the transportation fund.

Must Pass Twice

Wisconsin law requires a proposed constitutional amendment pass through two consecutive legislatures before going to the voters for final approval in a referendum.

Lawmakers sponsoring the joint resolution in the Assembly and Senate this session are predicting strong bipartisan support for the measure once again, meaning the question could be put before Wisconsinites on a ballot this year or next, depending on how quickly the legislature acts.

“When we collect taxes for a specific purpose, I think the money should fund what we told the public it would fund,” said Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi), the chief sponsor of the resolution in the Assembly. “We need to protect those segregated funds.”

The state’s transportation fund contains the bulk of the funding for transportation projects, about $1.8 billion in 2011-12, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

It’s where the gas taxes, vehicle registration, and title fees and the like end up.

Funds Repeatedly Raided

But since 2003, officials have been taking money from the transportation fund to help balance the general fund, taking about $1.4 billion over the decade.

Lawmakers transferred some of money back to the transportation fund, but it replaced most of it by borrowing money, which then has to be repaid with interest.

“We’re not finding fault with where the money went, because there was all the other important things that needed to be funded,” Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) told the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, Veterans, and Military Affairs during a hearing on the joint resolution.

Petrowski noted that he was not assigning blame for the fund transfers.

“But I do believe that because this was the largest fund that seemed to be used for a variety of other purposes, it’s important that those dollars stay in transportation,” said Petrowski, the committee’s chair, who also is a lead sponsor on the legislation.

The Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, a citizens group formed in October 2011, has finished its study of transportation funding, concluding the state will be short nearly $6 billion in transportation funds needed just to maintain current infrastructure over the next decade.

Governor Opposes Tax Hike

Even before the commission released its report, Gov. Scott Walker (R) said he doesn’t want to increase the gas tax, which was one of the commission’s recommendations.

“But the gap that we outlined is real, and none of the answers is necessarily simple,” commission member Craig Thompson told the Senate committee last week, speaking in support of the constitutional amendment. “But I think we can have a better conversation if people have the confidence that their money’s going where it’s supposed to.”

Kirsten Adshead ([email protected]) is projects/investigations editor at WisconsinReporter. Reprinted with permission of WisconsinReporter.com.


Kirsten Adshead ([email protected]) is projects/investigations editor at WisconsinReporter. Used with permission of WisconsinReporter.com.