Our Legislators Don’t Understand the Role of Our State Government
Our state legislature is having a hard time agreeing on a budget this year, especially when it comes to paying for and roads and bridges. One legislator says he won’t vote for the budget unless it eliminates the requirement to pay the prevailing wage for workers who work on road projects. Another legislator says that we should eliminate bonding as a means of paying for our roads. Our governor says that that he won’t agree to raise the gasoline tax or the vehicle registration fee.
All of these positions stem from a doctrinaire belief that the most important thing for our state to do is to lower taxes. People who hold this belief refuse to see that our state government has an important role in providing an environment in which all of us can thrive and that we must all share in its cost. Our roads and bridges make it possible for us to get to work. They make it possible for our factories to ship their products to markets all over the world. They make it possible for tourists from Chicago to spend their money in northern Wisconsin. We all know that our transportation network could never be built and maintained by the private sector alone. Much of the work is done by private contractors, but the planning and funding comes from the state.
All of Us Benefit and All of Us Should Pay
As a community we all benefit from our roads and bridges, and so it is only fair that we should pay for them as a community through our taxes. We have done so for many years through the gas tax. However, the gas tax at its current level is no longer sufficient to pay for our community’s roads and bridges, and so we have to reconsider the way we pay for them. We can find a way if we recognize that our state government is not something imposed on us. It is the means by which we act together to accomplish things like building roads that we cannot accomplish as individuals.
The Tax Burden Should be Apportioned Fairly
We should also accept that the cost of our roads and bridges should be apportioned as fairly as possible. Apportioning the cost fairly means that those who use the roads the most should pay the most. To do this, we can increase the gas tax, or we can move to a tax based on mileage. I favor the latter because such a tax would fall equally on drivers of electric cars and drivers of gas-powered cars. We could also increase the registration fee. We should not solve our problem by eliminating the “prevailing wage” rule in order to reduce the wages of the workers who build and maintain our roads. That would be unfair because it would not apportion the majority of the cost to those who receive the majority of the benefits.
Apportioning the cost fairly also means that future users of our roads and bridges should bear a part of their cost. It makes no sense to pay the whole cost in one year when the benefits will be spread over decades. So, we should use bonding to pay for roads and bridges. However, we should not use it as a substitute for raising taxes. We current users have to pay our share, too, and in addition, if we are going to borrow more money, we will need more tax revenue to pay our debt. We can pay for our roads and bridges in a sensible way if we stop focusing on reducing taxes and recognize that if our state community needs roads and bridges, we must pay for them with state taxes. Once we accept that principle, we will be able to focus on apportioning the cost in the fairest possible way.