This "Off Budget" Year Looms Large

By Craig Thompson, Executive Director, Transportation Development Association | September 28, 2010

Much of our public discourse and debate in Wisconsin, as it pertains to state politics and policy, moves to front and center after the governor introduces the biennial budget bill every two years.

Elected officials, interest groups, party faithful, independents and the like weigh-in, reacting to the priorities we establish through our decisions on where to spend our public dollars.

During the "off budget" year, however, is when some of the most meaningful dialogue can occur. This is a time, prior to commitments being made and lines being drawn, when sound analysis and simple fiscal realities have the best chance of being heard and absorbed.

Here are some of those realities. We recently finished a budget that raised various vehicle- and truck-registration fees that stemmed the erosion of our transportation funding base but did not establish a funding mechanism that will sustain us beyond the next two years.

Further complicating matters, language was included in this budget, at the last minute, which requires the Department of Administration to "lapse" $200 million from areas other than higher education and technical colleges to the general fund.

Wisconsin is still close to $600 million a year below meeting our transportation commitments as defined by the Legislature's own bipartisan "Road to the Future" committee.

We are in the early stages of completely reconstructing our interstate highway system in southeastern Wisconsin. In 2003, the total cost of this project was estimated to be $6.2 billion.

The only part we have experienced so far is the Marquette Interchange, which cost $810 million. That leaves more than $5 billion, as it was projected in 2003, left on our bill for the next several decades.

This does not begin to talk about the needs of our road system in the rest of the state or our transit systems, ports, airports, and railroads.

This infrastructure network is the fundamental basis for moving goods and people in Wisconsin, and since the elimination of gas tax indexing we are funding that network with a fixed-revenue source that doesn't even increase with the cost of living, not to mention construction inflation.

At the federal level, we have not changed the gas tax for 15 years and now face a $5-billion deficit in the Highway Trust Fund to meet obligations included in SAFETEA-LU. The House recently passed the final House-Senate conference report version of the fiscal 2008 Transportation-HUD appropriations bill by a wide margin — but short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto promised by President Bush because the price tag is too high.

In the context of all of this, Wisconsinites need to come to terms with the fiscal realities that face our state's infrastructure.

Prior to the introduction of the next biennial budget, the business community, transportation interests and our political leaders need to arrive at a funding strategy that will allow Wisconsin to compete in our highly competitive, global economy.

Raising our per-capita personal income is the only way we are going to dig ourselves out of the budget morass in which we find ourselves. And we are not going to do that if we allow our aging infrastructure to crumble about us while other states and countries aggressively retool and prepare for the future.

It is easy to wait until a proposal is on the table and then provide all the reasons why it will not work. Now is the time for those truly interested in the future of Wisconsin to put forth proposals that we believe will work.