Follow the road your tax dollars take to politicos' pockets

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In the Republicans’ 2011–13 biennial budget, funding was slashed in every major category, including education and health care, with one notable exception: transportation.

The GOP slashed school aid by more than $800 million, while transportation spending rose by $400 million. The increases were earmarked overwhelmingly for road builders.

If you think the money was used to fix potholes and repave bumpy local streets that keep throwing your wheels out of alignment, think again. The lion’s share of transportation dollars were virtual giveaways for road builders who write huge checks to the party in power – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

Sixty-three percent of state transportation funding in the 2011–13 budget went to highway building and only 13 percent supported local road improvements, despite the fact that local roads account for 90 percent of the roads in Wisconsin. Eighty-four percent of all transportation bonding goes to highways, according to Hiniker.

“In 2001, highway miles driven in the state were very close to what they were in 2011, but the expenditures on expanding highways has gone up by about 60 percent,” Hiniker said. “If people aren’t driving more, why are we building more?”

The answer is that some of the dollars spent on bogus highway projects find their way into campaign coffers. Critics contend the situation amounts to money laundering – a means of allowing taxpayer dollars to be converted legally into political donations.

Hiniker is raising the issue now because Gov. Scott Walker wants to ratchet up highway spending by $688 million in the 2013–15 state budget. Since he’s completely tapped out the transportation fund, Walker is asking legislators to shift the cost of highway construction to the general fund. That means political payoffs to road builders will come from the same funding source that provides aid to schools and medical care for the poor.

“By transferring the costs of transit from the transportation fund to the general fund, the governor effectively borrows an additional $107 million from the general fund in the second year of the biennium (budget),” Hiniker said. “Using these funds to build more roads when the transportation fund doesn’t have the money to take care of existing roads means that even more general funds will be needed to maintain the new roads.” 

Walker proposed the transfer to the general fund in the last budget, but legislators nixed it. Hiniker hopes an outcry of protest from the public will prevent Walker’s attempt in the next budget as well.

Interestingly, the Legislature has approved language for a constitutional amendment that would wall off the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes but did nothing to protect the general fund from raids for transportation purposes.

Most people wrongly assume that their gasoline taxes fund highway construction. In truth, gas taxes have not risen since 1993, so the burden for unnecessary highway projects is borne mostly by property tax payers.

“It’s time to recognize that highways are no longer even close to paying for themselves. We should either cut highway spending or make the tough decisions to raise revenues.”

At the same time Walker wants to put more money into the coffers of road builders, he’s slashing public transportation funding. One of his first acts as governor was turning down federal dollars to build a high-speed railway linking Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as Milwaukee and Madison. In addition to creating new jobs, the system would have increased economic activity by more efficiently linking the region’s major cities.

More recently, the GOP-controlled Legislature changed the rules surrounding financing for a rudimentary light-rail system for Milwaukee. The new rules would make the project prohibitively expensive. Other cities have found that such systems stimulate real-estate investments and bring increased economic activity to the neighborhoods they serve – both of which the state’s largest city and major economic generator could sorely use.

Public transit cuts

Although lawmakers scored brownie points with the road builders and fossil fuel companies that contribute money to them, the Legislature’s opposition to public transportation is out of synch with the times.  Young people and the state’s increasingly graying population are demanding more of it. They don’t want to be totally dependent on cars.

Many cities that are thriving economically are investing not only in public transportation but also in bike trails and lanes, another strategy that Wisconsin Republicans strongly oppose.

“We have a $3 billion transportation budget and we can’t shuffle things around so that $10 million can go for transit?” Hiniker asked. “It’s so insignificant. It’s 0.3 percent of the transportation budget.  Why are these guys so adamantly against it?”

Walker and other Republicans contend that public transit ridership is down. But Hiniker said that’s a situation they’ve purposely created.

“They cut transit service and raise fares.  As a result, they lose riders. Then they say, ‘There are fewer riders, so let’s cut it some more,’” Hiniker explained.

“The road builders never want to see passenger rail come in and siphon away highway dollars,” Hiniker added. “Meanwhile, it’s the job of lawmakers to get reelected. They have to get money, and the road builders have it. Local transit and mayors don’t, so they follow the money. It’s the way the political economy works.”

(Editor’s note: WiG’s CEO is a supporter of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.)