GOP Budget Chair Calls for Tax Hike Despite Transportation Spending Facts

State Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee of the legislature that will write the next state budget, on Wednesday issued a call for higher taxes to fund road construction projects. Citing the “grim outlook” for state road conditions, Nygren declared that he will support a tax hike in the next budget and called on Gov. Scott Walker (R) to also support a tax increase. But in calling for a tax hike, Nygren overlooked key facts about the state of Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure.

“In the upcoming budget, we need to bring in new revenue that will help buy down our transportation debt and structure a sustainable plan for Wisconsin’s infrastructure,” Nygren declared. “Moving forward, I implore the governor to consider additional avenues of funding as well.”

Despite the doom-and-gloom assessment of Nygren, however, Wisconsin’s roads aren’t in bad shape. According to the DOT’s own infrastructure scorecard, 97.2% of so-called “backbone” state highways – those that carry nearly half of all traffic and 70% of the freight that moves across the state – are in average to good condition. For non-backbone state highways, 82% are rated as average to good condition. Both figures are higher than DOT’s own goals for those road systems.

Wisconsin currently has the twelfth highest gas tax in the country, with state taxes and fees making up 32.9 cents of the per gallon price. That’s higher than the gas taxes of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, all states that share borders with Wisconsin.

In both total dollar amounts and per capita spending figures, Wisconsin has increased transportation spending significantly over the past decade plus. In 2003, for example, Wisconsin spent $347 per capita on road projects. By 2013, that figure rose to $535 per capita even factoring in the state’s population increase over that time. The following year, 2014, road spending in Wisconsin rose to $576 per capita, an increase between 2003 and 2014 of 66%. In contrast, the state’s population only grew about 5% over that same period.

Walker has consistently said that he is opposed to raising the gas tax in part because Wisconsin is still one of the most taxed states in the country, and with respect to the gas tax is still remarkably high compared to neighboring states.

Some advocates for increasing the gas tax charge that increased fuel efficiency has led to a reduction in revenue compared to overall highway use. But according to non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau data, total fuel sales in Wisconsin have increased 3.79% from fiscal year 2013-2014 to fiscal year 2016-2017, meaning more revenue than ever is coming in from the gas tax.

As lawmakers mull how to manage transportation priorities in the next budget, the facts show that total spending and revenue for transportation spending are both higher now than they have been at any time in the past.