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Capitol Notebook: State residents want roads fixed
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Wisconsin residents seem ready to pay more to the government to fix their roads and highways.

The latest Marquette University Law School poll showed broad support for a tax-increase idea that floated through the State Capitol but was not enacted. It would have allowed county boards to impose an additional half-percent sales tax to meet local road maintenance needs.

The margin of support was 2-to-1, and that’s a high level for a tax-increase proposal of any kind. It may reflect the condition of roads. News accounts suggest the state roads have been rated the third worst in the nation.

There has been broad bipartisan legislative support for raising additional transportation funds. But set aside is any real discussion of exactly how the money would be raised.

What’s missing is support from Gov. Scott Walker.  He has opposed all fee increases or higher gasoline taxes to meet the state’s road needs.

On another transportation issue, Walker is questioning whether to put repeat drunk drivers in prison. The Legislature has voted to make a fourth drunk-driving conviction a felony. The Department of Corrections has suggested in the first year that could cost $100 million by putting 1,000 people in prison.

The governor says he wants to find a cheaper alternative for handling the repeat drunk drivers. Fewer drunk drivers is certainly a highway safety issue as well as a criminal matter.

On the highway repair and construction issue, Walker’s approach last year continued to be the use of borrowing for the short term. But bonds and their interest must be repaid. Some might suggest that Walker’s opposition to any boost in transportation fees or taxes might have been tied to his hopes to be the next president of the United States.

Opposition to any fee or tax increase for transportation could have been attractive to Republican voters in other states as they select a presidential candidate. But the Marquette poll suggests it isn’t as attractive to those who travel on Wisconsin roads.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the lack of a transportation solution was “my single disappointment with the (legislative) session.’’

Elected officials should “have figured out a way to solve transportation,” Vos told a Racine audience.

“It is not conservative … to not fix something until it is so broken we have to spend a lot more to repair it,” said Vos. “We have to raise new revenue in some way or other. That’s what it really comes down to.”

Both Vos and Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha, the Democratic leader in the Assembly, like the idea of toll roads in Wisconsin. That would require federal approval because of the funding of interstate highways.

Help from Washington seems unlikely any time soon. Earlier this month, President Obama proposed a $10-per-barrel tax on oil companies to raise hundreds of billions of dollars to fund  road and bridge work and other infrastructure. Republican leaders in the Congress quickly rejected the idea.

The tax idea involved in the Marquette University poll also could have difficulties. A higher sales tax would help urban counties, but the benefit might not work out for lower-population rural counties with a lot of roadway to maintain.

That would be bad news for Walker. An earlier Marquette University poll showed the largest drop in his support has been in rural western and northern Wisconsin. The latest Marquette poll showed his statewide support still is less than 40 percent.

Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 36 years, including the actions of nine governors. The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.