Transportation fund referendum: be careful what you wish for…

With all the campaign advertising we’ve been subjected to in Wisconsin over the past few months, it’s hard to believe that anybody has missed anything.

Well, they have. In 53 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, the following question will appear on the November ballot:

“Should the Wisconsin Constitution be amended to prohibit any further transfers or lapses from the segregated transportation fund?”

Well, who wouldn’t support that? The last several budget cycles in the State of Wisconsin have seen hundreds of millions of dollars taken from the transportation fund to balance the budget. A lot of people think that’s a bad move, but nobody more than the people who build roads – and they are the ones who had their people running around the state this year getting county boards to add the question to the ballot. Most of them obliged and the only reason that there aren’t 54 counties on the November list is that Racine County added the question to their September primary. It passed 18,748 to 6,676 – but the margin was actually 55.7 percent in favor to 19.8 percent opposed. Now, I realize that only adds up to 75.5 percent and not 100 percent. That’s known as an undervote.

One might presume that the nearly 25 percent of the electorate who left the question blank on their primary ballots might have done so for a reason and a likely reason might be that they had no background on the issue. Personally, I congratulate those people who showed up at the polls and thoughtfully decided not to vote on something that they knew little or nothing about — (if that’s what happened; I never checked to see if that was the case.)

The question will surely pass overwhelmingly in a few weeks, but it will be interesting to see how many people in the 53 counties will also walk away shaking their heads without responding because they aren’t prepared to respond with no background about the issue.

The coalition pushing for the ballot measure is impressive: 3M; AAA – Wisconsin; Aggregate Producers of Wisconsin; American Council of Engineering Companies of Wisconsin; American Petroleum Institute; Construction Business Group; Dairy Business Association; East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission; Forward Janesville, Inc.; Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association; Greater Brookfield Chamber of Commerce; Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce; International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 139; Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce; Midwest Food Processors Association; National Federation of Independent Business; Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce; Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin; Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association; Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association; Wisconsin Automotive Aftermarket Association; Wisconsin Commercial Ports Association; Wisconsin Concrete Pavement Association; Wisconsin County Highway Association; Wisconsin Earth Movers Association; Wisconsin Economic Development Association; Wisconsin Grocers Association; Wisconsin Housing Alliance; Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council; Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce; Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association; Wisconsin Petroleum Council; Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association; Wisconsin Restaurant Association; Wisconsin Retail Council; Wisconsin Towns Association; Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and the Wisconsin Urban & Rural Transit Association.

Now, I have nothing against these people and I’ve even been a member or lobbied with some of them in the past. But the question is designed to evoke a knee-jerk response and in a vacuum, I would certainly support the concept of protecting against bait & switch games with segregated funds, myself. But here’s the thing: transportation expenditures didn’t really take a hit. There were a lot of projects that were bonded (at historically low interest rates.) There were even more projects added via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Remember listening to talk radio blowhards telling you about how the stimulus didn’t do anything while you were driving through all those construction zones this year? You know, the same people who tout tax cuts as a way to improve employment all the time and leave out the fact that around 40 percent of that stimulus legislation they hate was in the form of tax cuts?)

But I digress. The reason that I’m not voting for the ballot measure is because I think it trivializes our state constitution and creates a sacred cow, when good policy would seem to require that everything be on the table in budget discussions. Protect transportation disproportionately and all of the pressure relieved in that realm will build in the areas of shared revenue, school aids, services to the needy, etc. It’s not a pretty picture and it creates a false priority by preventing comparison to other responsibilities and obligations that the state has.  Moreover, given reasonable interest rates, it is altogether appropriate to spread the cost of long-term infrastructure improvements over a reasonable period of time in order to more fairly apportion the costs to the people for whom the investment will be used and useful.  

If the transportation lobby truly wants to make sure transportation is adequately funded going forward, then a good first step would be to restore the gasoline tax indexing mechanism that was ended in 2006 as a futile, populist and poor policy gesture toward high gasoline prices at the time. But that referendum probably wouldn’t pass.  Instead, we’ve got a “Let’s Make a Deal” question and the majority of Wisconsinites are going to trade for what’s behind Curtain Number 1, without having any idea what it will be. 

And just for balance, here’s an opposing viewpoint: 



One Response to “Transportation fund referendum: be careful what you wish for…”

  1. The Legislature has not only raided various “funds” to fill budget holes, it has played games for years with the constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced, in good economic times and bad, and with different parties in charge. Would a new amendment to the constitution make any difference to the current inhabitants of the state capitol?

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