Wisconsin was stuck in a rut for a decade. The recurring story of our state's budget practices - first a structural deficit, then a one-time budget fix, then another deficit - wasn't getting us anywhere. It needed to end. That's why local governments, private businesses, organized labor, transportation associations, regional planning interests, housing organizations and many other groups came together as a coalition committed to moving Wisconsin forward.
Finding Forward is not interested in revisiting past battles or assessing blame for how Wisconsin fell into this pattern. Instead, the goal of the coalition is to ensure that this unhealthy practice never happens again. In other words, every group in the coalition simply wants Wisconsin to "find forward."
Wisconsin has a history of funding its transportation system by charging the users of that system. In order to ensure that user fees fund the system, the dollars need to be maintained in an account separate from general tax revenue. Almost 90 percent of Wisconsin's state funding for transportation comes from two main user fees: the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
A user fee is payment for a specific service, while a tax funds general services as determined through the state's budget process. The "user fee compact" holds that those who pay should benefit from those revenues. Just as hunters and anglers believe that the license fees they pay should be used to promote those activities, transportation advocates believe the fees paid by system users should be dedicated to maintaining and improving that system.
It is true that the stop-gap method of budgeting - of transferring money out of any segregated fund in an attempt to fill a deficit in a general fund - damaged Wisconsin's fiscal health. No single constitutional amendment can fix that, though, because constitutional language must be very precise to be enforceable. For this reason, the coalition believes only constitutional language that spells out directly where the money comes from and what it can be used for will be successful.
The majority of other states have come to this same conclusion - they have provisions and language in their constitutions that explicitly protect transportation user fees.
The transportation fund has been the fund with the most dollars transferred out. Amending the state constitution to safeguard it can serve as the example for protecting all segregated funds.
No. Wisconsin's segregated transportation fund is the sole source of state funding for the entire transportation system - highways, air, rail, transit, harbors, bicycle and pedestrian facilities. When money is diverted from the transportation fund, it hurts all of these modes of transportation.
The state legislature must pass a joint resolution with the proposed constitutional language in two consecutive legislative sessions. If both houses of the legislature pass the exact same joint resolution in two consecutive sessions, then the proposed language will be placed on a binding referendum to go before the voters in a subsequent election.
With a bipartisan vote in May 2011, the Wisconsin Legislature took an important step by passing "first consideration" of a proposed constitutional amendment. The amendment must pass again in this legislative session before it is put before the public in a statewide referendum.
There are no guarantees that future lawmakers could not find creative ways to divert transportation user fees. By voting to place language in the constitution, however, the public will clearly declare its intentions. In addition, other states have found that constitutional language provides a legal remedy if it is violated.
The evidence is clear. Numerous budgets transferred transportation dollars to the general fund and replaced them with general obligation bonds, and we have seen the effects. We know that this is not a stop-gap measure that allows Wisconsin to get through a bad time. It is a stop-gap measure that only makes the bad times worse.
In November of 2010, the people of Wisconsin sent a clear mandate to our elected officials to take action and give us the ability to vote on amending the state's constitution. Our elected officials listened. "First consideration" of a constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and the Assembly. To keep this process moving forward, this legislature must pass the same legislation on "second consideration" and in so doing put the issue before the voters.
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