Sunday, April 30, 2017

WisGOP hates wheel taxes? There's an easy solution for that

One of the byproducts of the state's crisis in Transportation funding is that many local communities have had to turn to come up with money to fix their local streets and highways. The problem is that there are few options given to local Wisconsin governments to raise money (due to property tax limits), so many communities have had to implement local vehicle registration fees in recent years (here's the current list from the Wisconsin DOT).

Also known as a "wheel tax", these fees are tacked onto your annual $75 vehicle registration that you send to the state, and then redistributed down to the city or county that levies it. This means the average Wisconsinite may think that state legislators raised their registration fees, and that pressure combined with some Wisconsin Republicans opposing any type of tax or revenue enhancer, has led some Baggers to try to take action to stop this "problem."

One of these "I hate taxes/revenues" dimwits is Oshkosh-area Rep. Michael Schraa (R-gerrymandering), and he is circulating a bill to give local voters a potential veto if their pass a new wheel tax.
The wheel tax can be hard on working families—especially those with teen drivers. Drivers are already paying $75 to register their cars. Imagine living in Milwaukee where they add $20 to the registration fee for the city wheel tax, and another $30 for the county wheel tax. Milwaukee residents are paying $125 per year for each vehicle. If there is a spouse who also needs to drive to work, the cost is doubled. Now add in a couple of teenage drivers. A family of four is paying $500 per year to register vehicles for two adults and two teen drivers.

Most wheel taxes are not as high as Milwaukee’s, but there are some additional concerns. The wheel tax is a regressive tax which has a greater impact on the poor than on the wealthy and middle classes. Unlike the property tax, the wheel tax can't even be deducted on income taxes. Government transparency requires a careful examination of all these issues, and the voters should at least have an opportunity to weigh in on this expense.

“Let’s keep the option for counties and local governments to raise transportation funds through a wheel tax, and let’s also give the people who pay that tax and drive on those roads a say in the decision.
Schraa claims that the wheel tax is also regressive because of its flat-fee design, but he doesn't seem to understand that people in real cities like Milwaukee and Madison have other transportation options, so they don't need to have a car (or as many cars) as people in the sticks. Regardless, the concern over having these fees go up is something that many have and will notice in the future, and that's where Schraa's desire for action comes from.

By the way, nice usage of the RW radio talking point of "Milwaukee is a high-tax hellhole," Rep. Schraa. I also see that State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk continued this meme, by pointing out that Milwaukee County voters overwhelmingly rejected an advisory amendment asking to increase the County's wheel tax to $60 to pay for spending in both road repair and transit.
For many years in Wisconsin, the only way a local government entity could raise money was via referendum. Unfortunately, many local elected officials are using the state law regarding wheel taxes to avoid the support of the people...

Even more ridiculous in Milwaukee County is that the $30 wheel tax being paid by car owners is mostly going to buses.

I am sure many hard-working citizens in Milwaukee are not happy that the money they are forced to pay in a wheel tax isn’t even going to fix the roads they drive on. I just wonder how many know this is what is actually happening with their money.”
Well, Rep Schraa and Treasurer Schraa, I got a simple answer to deal with this problem. Fund the cities and counties adequately from the state level. It is no coincidence that most of these wheel taxes have been passed in recent years, as WisGOP moves to cut taxes and cut shared revenues to local communities have squeezed local governments around the state. And no relief is coming in the 2017-19 budget, as that gimmicky, deficit-ridden document actually reduces shared revenues, and currently doesn't have any extra money for local roads aids, now that the Joint Finance Committee has ripped up Gov Walker's DOT budget and is starting from this year's base.

Schraa and Adamczyk bitching about Milwaukee is especially rich, because WisGOP legislators have consistently cut shared revenues to the state's largest city over the last 20 years, while not giving the city any extra assistance for the higher amount of police and fire protection responsibilities that it has to take on as a result of its large size and density. Let me remind you of this passage from a February article by Bruce Murphy is Urban Milwaukee.
Most cities in America have the ability to levy a sales or income or gas tax. Not cities in Wisconsin. That law goes back to 1911, when Wisconsin created the first state income tax in America. The legislature also wrote a law preventing cities from levying an income tax — to prevent some cities from gaining an advantage over others. Instead, the legislature committed to returning a significant portion of the state income tax revenue to cities through state shared aid.

But the legislature began retreating on that century-old grand bargain in the 1990s. Result: In 1995, 53 percent of Milwaukee’s general purpose budget was paid for by shared revenue, but that dropped to just 39 percent by 2012. Today, it’s down to 36 percent.

“State shared aid once paid for our entire police and fire department budget,” [Milwaukee Mayor Tom] Barrett notes. Now it doesn’t even pay for the entire police budget.

Let's also remember that Milwaukee County attracts the most tourism dollars out of any county in the state, and the solution to the concerns Schraa and Adamczyk have over higher wheel taxes becomes obvious. Let Milwaukee and other communities raise their own revenues for roads and transit with a local sales tax. This isn't a new idea. A bill to allow a referendum on whether a 0.5% sales tax would be designated for roads had bipartisan support in the last legislative session, but Assembly Speaker Robbin' Vos and Bradley Foundation-funded stink tanks had it killed ahead of the last election.

Let's also remember that the state used to have the ability to levy local sales taxes for transit and related needs, in the form of Regional Transit Authorities. RTAs not only were designed to better coordinate transit across county and city lines, but it also would have put these operations off of the property tax, making it easier to fund other needs throughout the community. Naturally, the anti-city Wisconsin GOP got rid of the RTAs as soon as they took power in 2011, and it's no coincidence that the funding problems for roads and transit have only gotten worse in the time since.

If state legislators and Gov Walker are still more concerned with the thoughts of "no-tax" DC Lobbyist Grover Norquist over the needs of Wisconsinites to have safe roads, and they don't want to see registration fees go up, then a local sales tax for roads and/or transit seems to be the obvious solution. This takes the debate out of the hands of state legislators, or at least limits it to what highway projects will be built or delayed due to this Bubble-World mentality.

In addition, having a sales tax be responsible for funding some of the local streets is more equitable than a registration fee, because some of those costs will be borne by tourists and other out-of-towners that use the roads, instead of allowing those people to free-ride whenever they go into big cities and enjoy the increased amenities and attractions that they offer.

But of course, allowing local communities to raise their own revenues is a real-life solution to the problem of deteriorating roads and transit services, and not a political one that distracts the rubes with resentment of "those people" in Milwaukee, or one that tries to pose for "low tax" holy pictures while allowing the GOP-voting burbs in the 262 to continue to gravy-train off of the Dem voters in the 414. We'll see which direction the Wisconsin GOP will take as the DOT funding debate heats up in the coming weeks, but I wouldn't be too confident that they'd choose the responsible, apolitical option.

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