I joined Vicki McKenna on Monday on her show on WIBA to talk about my column at the MacIver Institute exposing what appears to be a campaign to plant phony letters to the editor in papers around the state to manufacture a “grassroots” groundswell in favor of a gas tax increase.

The following column first appeared at the MacIver Institute.

The ground should’ve shifted beneath Madison recently when the latest Marquette University Law Poll found most Wisconsinites aren’t nearly as concerned as many have long claimed about the issue of transportation, the debate that’s plagued the state Capitol and budget process for months.

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Marquette’s poll, conducted at the end of June, found that a mere 23 percent of respondents identified transportation as their top priority. More Wisconsinites identified healthcare (25 percent) and K-12 education (37 percent) as their number one concerns.

Even more tellingly, the Marquette poll found that a slim majority – 51 percent – of those who said transportation is their highest priority would not be willing to pay higher taxes for transportation, while just 46 percent said they would pay more. By contrast, 75 percent of respondents who said K-12 education is their top concern would be willing to pay higher taxes for that priority.

When given the chance to list their top two priorities, just 42 percent of respondents in the Marquette Poll included transportation, again trailing K-12 education (63 percent) and healthcare (52 percent).

In other words, transportation isn’t that hot a topic outside the beltline, and even those who say it’s their most important issue are squishy when asked to put their money where their mouth is.

Proponents of increased revenue point to a different, privately-financed poll conducted in late May to early June by Public Opinion Strategies as evidence they’re on the right side of public opinion. That poll found that 76 percent would pay $4 more a month “if it meant creating an immediate solution to fix Wisconsin’s roads,” according to a Transportation Development Association press release, which commissioned the poll.

The poll leads respondents to a desired answer by implying a measly $4 a month in higher taxes would instantly result in every single road in the state being transformed into pristine condition. It’s very easy to respond yes to that question, but fixing state’s transportation morass isn’t nearly that simplistic.

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The TDA poll also found that voters oppose increased borrowing for transportation. But Governor Walker’s budget actually decreases road bonding to $500 million, down from $850 million in the last budget and the lowest level of bonding since the 2001-03 budget. Walker also recently offered to cut bonding to $300 million – an offer rejected by Assembly leadership.

The “revenue enhancement” crowd loves to compare transportation bonding to putting road work on the credit card, but a better comparison is buying a home. While it would be ideal to buy a house with cash, only a select few can cut a check that big.

It’s simply not reasonable to think the state can or should pay for a billion-dollar interchange project in cash.

Speaking of billion-dollar road projects, respondents to the TDA poll also oppose delaying southeast mega projects. That’s not surprising – reasonable people oppose delays in roadwork because every motorist has sat in a traffic jam surrounded by construction barrels. No one likes delays – but the fact is, the vast majority of projects throughout Wisconsin would proceed without delay under Walker’s proposal.

So while the TDA poll found large majorities generally support a small revenue increase if it would fill every pothole, seal every crack, and finish every project on time without borrowing, the Marquette poll revealed that Wisconsinites aren’t that passionate about the issue and are much more hesitant to pay more when not presented with a low-cost magic fix.

The Marquette poll contradicts claims by the “revenue enhancement” crowd that there’s an angry mob of motorists clamoring for a price hike at the pump. Proponents of a gas tax increase also like to point to spontaneous and supposedly uncoached letters that have been appearing in various newspapers around the state demanding action on road funding.

Nearly the same letter appears in newspapers around the state, all written under the same two names – Megan Delaney and Shannon O’Connell. In the Janesville Gazette, Delaney claims to be from Janesville. In the La Crosse Tribune, she says she’s from Onalaska. In the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and Stevens Point Journal, O’Connell claims to be from Wisconsin Rapids, but in papers serving Baraboo, Beaver Dam, and Portage, she says she’s from Fall Creek. In the Rice Lake Chronotype, she says she’s from nearby Barron.

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Even if there are two Megan Delaneys, one living in Janesville and one living in Eau Claire, and three Shannon O’Connells, each very concerned about our transportation infrastructure and the need for higher gas taxes, the similar language used in papers from Janesville to Rice Lake suggests something else may be afoot.

This is an astroturf campaign, the tactic of special interests that want to make it look like the rest of the state cares about their cause and sides with them.

Transportation funding has been the bull in the budget china shop for months here in Madison, but the Marquette poll and the copy-paste-repeat letter campaign suggests a different reality: Wisconsinites are not clamoring for a tax increase like some in the media are trying to portray. Real Wisconsinites are not obsessed with finding ways to increase transportation funding. Remember, according to the Marquette poll, even among those who are concerned about transportation, a MAJORITY of those transportation-concerned individuals DO NOT favor a higher gas tax or registration fee.

Legislative leaders have come up with a cavalcade of ideas for raising taxes and fees to achieve their transportation goals. They and others have floated the idea of applying the sales tax to gasoline, adding toll roads, taxing farm equipment, tacking on a new heavy truck fee, and increasing the sales tax by $1 billion – among other ideas.

The “just tax it” crowd has it backwards. Instead of using manufactured public outcry to justify wringing more money out of Wisconsin motorists, farmers, and truckers, they should support a commonsense budget that focuses on the real concerns of the majority of the taxpaying public.

To paraphrase a famous quip by Governor Lee Dreyfus, Madison is 77 square miles surrounded by reality. The heated and protracted debate over transportation funding taking place in the state Capitol is a perfect case-in-point.

The following first appeared at the MacIver Institute.

[Madison, Wis…] House Speaker Paul Ryan threw some cold water on the idea that the federal government would swoop in with more federal dollars to fund some of the state’s largest projects at a MacIver Institute event on Friday.

“Our goal is not to maximize federal spending,” Ryan said when asked about the possibility of a major spending package aimed at infrastructure. Instead, the Janesville Republican said he hopes to use fewer federal dollars with more private money to match it.

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“We need to take the federal fiscal footprint and make it smaller to leverage more of the private sector dollars,” Ryan said.

That’s bad news for Wisconsin infrastructure hawks who may have seen a ray of hope in Gov. Walker’s compromise proposal to cut transportation bonding by $200 million and link more spending on the state’s Southeast Freeway Mega Projects to a windfall of federal money.

The Department of Transportation reportedly plans to request $341 million in federal transportation money, significantly more than the state’s typical request of the feds.

Walker offered the revised plan in an attempt to break an ongoing budget impasse centering on the transportation budget. In addition to reducing bonding by $200 million, the compromise plan asked the Legislature to approve contingency bonding for the Southeast Freeway Mega Project program, projects receiving federal financial assistance and carrying a price tag of $500 million or more.

“Interstate 94 North/South, the Zoo Interchange and Interstate 94 East/West are high profile projects in southeastern Wisconsin. We propose contingency bonding that would be linked to additional federal funding for mega projects,” Walker wrote. “Wisconsin is well positioned to qualify for additional federal funding to help support mega projects.”

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) is also hopeful more money from D.C. is in the offing. “The federal government budget comes out in August. We’re hoping there is opportunity for us to get a big investment out of the federal government,” said Darling, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee.

Ryan’s comments hint that a substantial boost in federal funding is unlikely to materialize.

Walker’s offer – which does not increase the gas tax or vehicle registration fee, one of the governor’s core promises in the budget – doesn’t seem to have persuaded Assembly leadership, which is insisting on additional revenue for the troubled DOT.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke called Walker’s proposal a “good step in the right direction” in an interview with the MacIver News Service on News/Talk 1130 WISN, but reiterated that he still believes new revenue is needed. “We need to keep some of these projects on track…and without new revenue, that’s going to be impossible to do.”

I joined Jim Schneider on VCY America TV’s inFocus for an hour-long live interview on Monday, and took calls from around the state. It was the last installment of the season.

The following story by Matt Kittle, breaking down the Assembly GOP’s plan to overhaul the tax code, increase transportation funding, and make other reforms, first appeared at the MacIver Institute.

After weeks of tortured speculation, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga on Thursday unveiled an ambitious transportation/tax reform package aimed at driving down road borrowing, dramatically cutting the state income tax through a flat tax on income, and bringing integrity back to government spending.

But the Brookfield Republican’s sweeping proposal, which appears to have the backing of the GOP Assembly, promises to be a tough sell for some of the state’s most powerful interest groups – chief among them, the petroleum marketers.

Some in Kooyenga’s party may have a hard time swallowing a provision in the package that would place a sales tax on gas, particularly Gov. Scott Walker, who has declared open war on any proposal bound by transportation tax hikes.

Kooyenga rolled out his “Road to a Flat Tax” package at a press conference Thursday afternoon in front of a deep and wide phalanx of his fellow Republican Assembly members – a show of solidarity for what promises to be a bruising legislative battle ahead.

A tax by any other name?

The transportation proposal adds a state sales tax on gasoline, currently exempted. That provision would raise an estimated $660 million over the biennium (2017-19), assuming gas prices at $2.33 per gallon.

But the tax burden – and the accompanying revenue it would create – would be bought down by a provision lowering the state’s mandated “minimum markup” of gas prices from the obligatory 9.2 percent to 3 percent.

The plan also calls for cutting Wisconsin’s gas tax of 32.9 cents a gallon, one of the highest in the nation, by nearly 5 cents.

Kooyenga estimates the reductions would wring out an estimated $330 million from the $660 million generated from the gas sales tax, leaving more than $300 million in additional transportation funding.

Asked whether he thought the sales tax on gas was just a “tax on a tax,” Kooyenga said the structure is a “matter of mechanics,” that it’s easier for retailers to adopt. Had it been viewed as more complicated or opposed by those charged with collecting it, the lawmaker said, he would have reduced his proposed gas tax cut instead.

The increased revenue from the sales tax would be targeted for transportation bonding reduction, a move expected to reap significant savings to state coffers. About 22 cents on the dollar goes to transportation interest payments, a big piece of the funding pie that will only expand without a major intervention, Kooyenga said.

“We cannot fix our roads by borrowing our way to prosperity,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos,R-Rochester.

The speaker has pushed for more funding for road projects. While he acknowledged that he and his Republican colleagues aren’t happy with every element of Kooyenga’s proposal, the increased revenue begins the process of finding a long-term solution to the state’s transportation funding problems.

The petroleum marketing lobby doesn’t quite see it that way. Sources say the special interest group is launching a campaign to kill the minimum markup provision.

One of the big Capitol questions in response to Kooyenga’s sales tax provision: What happens if gas hits $4 a gallon? The legislator, a member of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said the sales tax could come with curbs when prices at the pump soar or plummet.

Walker’s budget proposes $500 million in new bonding. Kooyenga said reducing transportation debt will save taxpayers about $150 million over a 20-year bonding cycle.

Kooyenga’s debt-reduction plan is dependent in part – about $70 million or so – on federal funding, something that won’t be known until August.

And Kooyenga’s plan would end the practice of siphoning of transportation money to pay for general budget items, a practice that defined former Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle’s tenure in office and helped create a massive transportation budget shortfall.

“We were all outraged with the way the transportation fund was being raided by Doyle,” Kooyenga told MacIver News Service. “This makes the general fund stand alone and the transportation fund stand alone. There will be no subsidization.”

The transportation proposal also includes:

  • Elimination of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law.
  • Elimination of 180 Department of Transportation positions.
  • A Roundabout moratorium.
  • Suspension of new local wheel taxes, including Milwaukee County’s.
  • Referendum authority, giving local governments the option to ask voters for a half-cent bump in to the sales tax to help fund transportation needs. The ballot issues would be capped at two over eight years, and the law would expire in 10 years.
  • Consideration of the creation of toll roads.

Flat Tax

The package calls for a 3.95 percent flat income tax implemented over a decade, and it keeps Walker’s elimination of the state property tax. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects over $2 billion in annual income tax cuts when the flat tax is fully implemented.

Kooyenga’s proposal is similar to the MacIver Institute’s “Glide Path To A 3% Flat Income Tax,”released in January.

Republican Assembly leadership says he infrastructure/tax reform proposal builds on Walker’s budget proposal, released in January.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday from MacIver News Service, but Walker told conservative talk show host Mark Belling Wednesday that he had no problem working with the Legislature on a transportation solution.

He remains fixed in his position.

“My position has not changed,” Walker said, “I don’t not believe we need to have a gas tax increase…” How about the addition of a sales tax on gas? Walker said he’s not interested in new taxes, even with tax cuts elsewhere.

To pay for the tax cuts, the reform plan eliminates or reduces several tax credits, including:

Marriage credit – “The proposal eliminates the credit in order to promote tax code simplicity, fairness and assist in paying for the flat tax,” the plan document asserts.

Property Tax/Rent Credit -Would repeal the credit for renters, effective in tax year 2019.

Electronics Recycling Fee – Unique to Wisconsin, the fee calculation is “complicated and creates onerous paperwork,” Kooyenga wrote. “The fund associated with the fee is solvent and the fee is no longer required.”

Working Families Tax Credit – Kooyenga says the tax credit was created to serve as a bullet point on a press release. Less than 1 percent of Wisconsin filers qualify. Kooyenga asserts elimination will simply the code.

The itemized deduction credit would be lowered from a 5 percent calculation to a 2 percent calculation in order to “assist in paying for the collapsing tax brackets.” And the current general exclusion for capital gains – 60 percent on the sale of farm assets and 30 percent of other types of capital gains – would be repealed in 2019.

Kooyenga’s plan also eliminates Wisconsin’s Alternative Minimum Tax, something the lawmaker says he’s been fighting for since he first joined the Assembly. Wisconsin is one of a half dozen states with an AMT. The plan would repeal the 6.5 percent alternative minimum tax, effective in tax year 2018.

The package met with immediate resistance from Democrats. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, described the flat tax plan as a giveaway to the wealthy and the transportation funding proposal ineffectual.

“Here we are with six weeks left until a new budget is due and they (Republicans) unveil a plan that will not solve the transportation problem to create a sustainable fund, but instead what they will do … is lower taxes for the very wealthy,” he said. “When you have townships turning asphalt roads into gravel, you know you have a serious problem.”

When asked whether Democrats had a plan, Barca said he and Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, have offered to sit down and talk to Republican leadership about the problems facing the state. Pressed for a plan, Barca said Democrats wouldn’t do away with Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law, as Republicans plan to do, and they would target tax breaks for Wisconsin’s “middle class.”

Kooyenga’s flat tax approach would target reduction across the board, with every taxpayer eventually paying the same rate. The lowest income brackets would be taxed at the flat rate by 2019, with higher income brackets phased in, through incremental reductions, over the decade.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, took to Twitter in reaction to Kooyenga’s proposals.

“The transportation & tax plan that Assembly leadership rolled out today contains a number of good ideas that are worth a closer look,” Fitzgerald tweeted. “I plan to review the proposal in its entirety to determine how closely it reflects Senate transportation priorities as talks continue.”

Kooyenga said his plan is about fairness. If Republican lawmakers are going to push measures to reform government, they need to be as diligent when it comes to eliminating special treatment for business. Minimum markup reform fits the latter, he said.

“Some people have said this is very complex. I think at the end of the day this is not very complex,” Kooyenga told MacIver News Service. “In summary, we’re reducing a very anti-free market law, we’re being consistent with our sales tax, we’re lowering our gas tax, we’re reducing our bonding, we are significantly changing our income tax code and making it fairer, flatter and simpler, and we’re putting in substantive, large transportation reforms.”

See that pothole-riddled city street in front of your house? Not the state’s problem.

More likely, those crumbling city streets – like those in this video of Milwaukee – are your local municipality’s responsibility. Those advocating for an increase in the gas tax would love if this minor, but crucial, detail is left out of the discussion.

The gas tax doesn’t pay for most city streets. Those crumbling streets will still be there, even if the gas tax was doubled – which is what it would take to assuage the gas tax crowd’s demands that all projects proceed on-time with no bonding.

As we’ve seen in La Crosse, cities, counties, and towns are failing to properly prioritize spending. Instead of ensuring local roads are kept up, local bureaucrats and boards are busy wasting taxpayer money on lavish new office buildings and exorbitant salaries. La Crosse County doubled its debt to $110 million in 2015, and scarcely a dime went to roads.

In Milwaukee, the city unearthed $60 million for a ridiculous fixed-rail trolley, but can’t seem to maintain its nearly 1,000 miles of city streets.

Over at the MacIver Institute, reporter Bill Osmulski explains.

We’ve all heard the narrative that Wisconsin is facing a transportation funding deficit of a billion dollars. As narratives go, it’s a case study in framing a public discussion. But over at the MacIver Institute, investigative reporter Bill Osmulski does what it seems nobody else has ever bothered to do – question that figure.

Below is an excerpt. Click through to see the full story and an avalanche of facts about transportation funding in Wisconsin.

A billion-dollar shortfall in the next transportation budget started the debate about raising Wisconsin’s gas tax, which was so explosive, no one seemingly had the time to confirm there is a billion-dollar shortfall. If they had, the current debate might not be centered on the gas tax, but instead on how we fund roads in the first place, because there’s only a shortfall if you change the way Wisconsin funds transportation.

The current 2015-2017 state budget spends $2.8 billion on highways, and $855 million of that comes from bonding. That means about 30 percent of everything Wisconsin spends on roads is borrowed, and there are those who believe the state should not be borrowing at all to pay for roads. That was the cover story for a peculiar request the Legislative Fiscal Bureau received last summer.

Even though the DOT was about to submit a new budget request in less than two months, Fiscal Bureau was asked to project what the DOT’s budget would look like under an unlikely set of circumstances. The request wanted the Fiscal Bureau to omit all bonding under a cost-to-continue scenario. The result was a $939 million difference between the current budget and the next.

The billion-dollar transportation deficit was born.

That number started the narrative that Wisconsin has a transportation funding crisis. It didn’t matter that two months later the DOT presented its actual budget request that included spending projections, revenue estimates, current federal funding commitments, and existing bonding. That request also indicated there would be a shortfall, but at $449 million, it was less than half of the previous projection. When Governor Walker presented his budget proposal, he included $500 million in new transportation bonding to fill that gap, which would be the lowest amount since the 2001-2003 budget. It would also mean no delays on major projects currently underway.

Still, the fabricated billion-dollar deficit dominates coverage of the transportation budget, and it continues to frame the debate over the gas tax. Framing the transportation debate this benefits those who want to raise the gas tax. However, they will still readily point to bonding as an underlying concern.

Whole thing here.

In today’s La Crosse Tribune I argue that proposals to raise the gas tax are the easiest solution, not the best solution. An excerpt:

Politicians and special interests have lined up to raise Wisconsin’s gas tax, a contentious issue that the recent election did not resolve. But the simplistic solution of a gas tax hike overlooks the complexity of the transportation funding issue and the buffet of alternative options available to legislators who are willing to be creative.

While Wisconsin’s “other season,” construction season, is quickly coming to an end, you still can’t drive more than a few miles in the state without finding a sea of orange construction barrels. There’s also the endless struggle over the contentious north-south corridor, which could put a four-lane highway through the La Crosse River Marsh.

Let’s acknowledge that there’s plenty of work to do as our region grows and demands on our infrastructure increase. Let’s also acknowledge that a gas tax won’t solve the problem. A breathtaking 28-cent-per-gallon hike — a 91 percent increase — would be needed to fully fund all of Wisconsin’s transportation priorities, according to a recent memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

By contrast, the state Department of Transportation’s 2017-2019 budget proposal does not raise the gas tax or registration fees at all. Instead, it redirects more funding to local governments, who will get the largest funding boost from the state that they’ve seen in 15 years. This proposal will help local governments carry out needed maintenance.

The DOT proposal would increase general transportation aid by $65 million, an increase of 8 percent for counties and 4.7 percent for municipalities over the last budget. That’s $14 million more for local roads and $5 million more for local bridges — the largest increase since 1998. It also boosts the highway maintenance fund to $1.7 billion, the largest that fund has ever been.

Whole thing here.

Photo credit: La Crosse Tribune