Gov. Evers Signals Gas Tax Hike May Be Included In Budget Proposal

Evers: Transportation Task Force Likely To Include Increase As Part Of Recommendations For Road Funding

Tony Evers
Gov. Tony Evers speaks Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 at Superior Days at the Madison Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson are sending strong signals that the upcoming state budget will include a proposal to raise the gas tax to pay for roads.

Evers told the Superior Days delegation in Madison Tuesday, that a task force of transportation stakeholders has been meeting to address funding for roads. Speaking with reporters after, he said there seems to be some consensus on how to fund transportation.

“From what I hear at least part of it is gas tax increases,” Evers said. “But, again, I want to make sure the final report is on my desk before we insert it into the budget.”

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The governor couldn’t say how big the hike might be. Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, say raising the gas tax wouldn’t solve the state’s transportation woes, touting tolling as a more long-term solution.

Thompson said he didn’t think tolling would be an option that could be implemented in the next two-year budget.

“I think for today we want to look at user fees that we have existing that we could collect without a lot of administrative costs, but we’re more than open to looking at more options for down the road,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that states such as Michigan, Indiana and Iowa have raised the gas tax to meet their needs.

“I think it’s one of the ones that we’re going to be looking at and considering adjusting here as well,” Thompson said.

During his address to the Superior Days crowd, Evers said communities shouldn’t have to resort to raising the wheel tax to repair roads at the local level.

“The state needs to share in that responsibility and that’s what I promise to make happen,” Evers said.

The governor said the task force would be releasing its recommendations for transportation in the near future.

Counties Propose Local Option Sales Tax

Northwestern Wisconsin counties lobbied lawmakers in Madison on Tuesday to give them the authority to raise the sales tax to generate revenues for road repairs.

Bayfield and Douglas counties are seeking legislation that would allow them to ask voters whether they would support a half percent local option sales tax to be used for highway and street maintenance. If successful, county officials say it would provide just under $5 million each year for the two counties combined to meet transportation needs.

“I think for the locals having the option if they so choose to raise the sales tax in a given area whether to improve their own local roads quicker, provide more transit or whatever it might be — I think it’s a very reasonable idea to say they should have that option with referendum,” Thompson said.

Transportation Secretary designee Craig Thompson meets with Superior Days delegates about funding for roads and transit. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said he’s optimistic northern Wisconsin will see support from lawmakers, as well as administration.

“I was surprised to hear both of them (Evers and Thompson) speak out against the wheel tax. That’s kind of how our county feels about it, too. I think we were being forced to actually consider that,” said Liebaert. “Maybe they’re looking at this half-percent sales tax as an alternative to the wheel tax that is not very well (received).”

Douglas County has more than 337 miles of county roads to maintain. The county’s highway department claims it would cost more than $80 million to improve the pavement ratings of county roads. The county has budgeted $2 million per year the last several years to pave roughly 6.5 miles of road each year. Officials say it would take more than 50 years to complete projects at that rate of funding.

Liebaert said the county would work to educate voters prior to holding any referendum on the issue if the state gives them the authority to move forward.

“I think the last couple of years we have been doing that, and I think it would pass,” he said.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsored a bill three years ago that would’ve allowed counties to put the question before voters, but the bill didn’t advance in the Legislature.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported that county officials were seeking a .05 percent sales tax. The story has been updated to reflect the half percent sales tax figure.