Wisconsin State Journal, June 9
Out-of-state drivers should pay more, too
To most people, the difference between a "fee" and a "tax" is semantics. You wind up paying for government services either way.
Yet Republicans who control the statehouse are acting like fees are just fine, while taxes are terrible.
It's an exaggerated and politically driven distinction, especially when it comes to paying for Wisconsin's poorly maintained roads.
And in trying to avoid the "t'' word — "tax" — GOP lawmakers will cost Wisconsin drivers greater expense in fees while letting visiting motorists from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and other states off the hook.
The Legislature should compromise on its proposed state transportation budget. It should accept some of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' more balanced approach to better roads.
In some ways, both partisan sides are in agreement. They both want to spend around the same total amount of money on transportation. And they have agreed to borrow less money, about $330 million, which is a welcome change from excessive borrowing by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Where the two sides differ is on how to raise new revenue to improve the state's neglected highway system, which ranks as one of the worst maintained in the nation.
The Legislature's GOP-run budget committee wants to more than double vehicle title fees in Wisconsin by $95 to $164.50, generating $273 million in additional revenue. The Republican plan also would increase the annual vehicle registration fee by $10 to $85 a year, generating $84 million in more money. GOP lawmakers want to define more vehicles as hybrids, which would bring in an extra $11 million.
Virtually all of those new dollars would come from state residents. So would most of the $90 million the GOP wants to grab from the state's general fund for transportation needs.
What the Republicans are refusing to do is increase the state's gas tax, which would force out-of-state drivers to contribute more to fixing the Wisconsin roads they use. Illinois tourists and other visitors, as well as long-distance truck drivers, pay the gas tax every time they fill their tanks in Wisconsin. So they would pay more if the gas tax were increased by 8 cents per gallon, as Gov. Evers has proposed.
Republicans may score some political points by blocking a gas tax hike. But by relying so heavily on title and registration fees instead, the Republicans are giving motorists from other states a free ride.
The gas tax, which is really just a user fee, hasn't been increased in 13 years, so it hasn't kept up with inflation and higher construction costs. At the same time, the average Wisconsin motorist is burning 48 fewer gallons annually than a decade ago because vehicles are more fuel efficient. So the average driver is spending about $15 less in fuel taxes.
Evers' gas tax increase would bring in $533 million in new revenue over two years — with a significant portion of those dollars coming from out of state. And for the average Wisconsin driver, the higher cost would be just $35 more a year, which is just a few bucks a month.
That's well worth better roads, without all of the burden falling on state residents.
Kenosha News, June 4
Wisconsin Conservation Congress is remarkable and unique
For anyone who values the importance of direct citizen input in government — and we do — there was an anniversary recently that should not go unnoticed.
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress formally marked its 85th anniversary as delegates gathered in Appleton for its annual convention in a spirited fashion. For decades, the Conservation Congress has been a sounding board for the state Department of Natural Resources — and a valuable one, at that — in setting and modifying fish and game regulations as well as other conservation issues affecting the lands and waters of the state.
The Congress does so through its annual spring meetings, a vast statewide referendum in April each year in which hunters, fishers and other citizens weigh in on proposed fish and wildlife rules in counties across the state and that input is given to the DNR and its governing Natural Resources Board.
It also offers state outdoors enthusiasts the chance to craft their own proposals and put them to a vote in their home county — if their suggestion wins passage, it goes to an advisory board of the Congress; if approved, it can be placed on the statewide ballot the next year.
It is a remarkable and unique setup among the states for policymakers to gain insight into public opinion on issues they are concerned about and translate them into fish and game rule changes.
DNR Secretary Preston Cole, newly appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, lauded the Congress for those years of advice at the group's convention.
"I remind folks that you won't see this setup anyplace else in the world but Wisconsin," he told the 300 delegates. "We have to be proud of that fact. This is Wisconsin's way of doing business as it relates to natural resource management."
That's not to say it's always been a smooth marriage — there have been some contentious encounters and disagreements over the years. Cole referred to them as "times when we have lots of interesting debates."
Yes, some of those debates roil the Congress as well.
The Congress rejected a proposed bounty system to pay deer hunters for deer carcasses infected with chronic wasting disease, even though 60 percent of those who took part in this year's spring hearings approved such a measure.
Disagreements, of course, are bound to happen, particularly in a state with great and closely held traditions of hunting and fishing, and respect for the game, the land and the waters. As always, those game and conservation concerns have to be balanced against sometimes other, competing state interests — agriculture, tourism, business, and industry and land ownership.
That can be a difficult process, and the steady input of advice from conservationists and sportsmen in the Wisconsin Conservation Congress have helped the state negotiate it for more than eight decades with remarkable results.
For that, they deserve a wish of "Happy Anniversary," and our thanks.
The Capital Times, June 6
Jim Steineke might be surprised if he let voters have a say
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, gave his Twitter account a workout over the weekend. Steineke's Saturday afternoon and evening tweeting trolled supporters of reproductive rights, criminal justice reformers, advocates for Medicaid expansion, and Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky.
Then he tore into Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, griping about a lighthearted appeal for marijuana legalization.
That earned Steineke a rebuke from a Wisconsinite who suggested that, instead of engaging in "partisan hit jobs," the assemblyman might better use his social media account to "represent the people who elected you." Steineke claimed he was doing just that, with a reply that declared: "My constituents actually oppose legalization."
We give Steineke credit for further engaging with that person, with an offer to meet for lunch and discuss the issue in person.
And we'd love to see the issue of marijuana legalization put on the ballot in Steineke's district. We suspect he might be in for a surprise.