Rep. Loudenbeck offers plan to solve budget stalemate

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MADISON - As the Wisconsin Legislature's budget-writing committee remains in a stand-off with Gov. Scott Walker over key issues in dueling budget proposals, one lawmaker is drafting a plan for the future of transportation funding in the state.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and member of the Joint Finance Committee, has pitched the idea of charging a per-mile fee on heavy trucks and assorted freight traffic to raise upwards of $250 million for the state's highway network over the next two years. The plan, which has yet to be introduced to the JFC, could be part of a larger revenue package to solve transportation funding issues.

Four other states use a per-mile fee to generate transportation funds, and could be implemented instead of a tolling system at a much lower cost.

"It's an option I think is worthy of consideration," Loudenbeck said. "It could be paired with other reforms."

Although Loudenbeck has said her fellow legislators were generally supportive of the plan, Republican leadership has yet to weigh in on the plan. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he was aware of the proposal, but did not comment on the issue. Fitzgerald declined to weigh in since it had yet to be presented to lawmakers in its entirety, according to an emailed statement from spokesperson Myranda Tanck.

Loudenbeck conceded the tax increase on freight could be passed onto consumers. About 80 percent of all goods bought in Wisconsin stores are shipped via truck, which is up 20 percent in the last four years. The concern has been echoed by freight interests, with the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association inviting Loudenbeck to speak at the group's June 22 meeting to further elaborate on the tax plan.

"I want to hear concerns from stakeholders to maintain a dialog and talk through any concerns and underscore that I am really flexible on this," Loudenbeck said. "I want to have a policy that works for everyone."

A key slowdown in the transportation fund includes the JFC's removal of the plan from the state budget, with top JFC members speculating it would be a long-shot to get the plan back into this year's budget talks after it was removed earlier this spring. Walker has spent time this spring touring the state, fighting against the removal of the transportation budget from fiscal talks, and even floated the idea of possibly supporting a statewide tolling system.

A tolling system would require statewide implementation and federal approval, and a study by HNTB Corp. showed tolling installs could cost over $112 million, divided amongst major travel hubs across Wisconsin's interstate system. JFC members, including co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, have speculated tolling implemented as Walker envisions could be illegal, by only placing tolls on state lines or targeting out-of-state drivers. The HNTB study notes an approach like that could violate federal commerce clauses.

Lawmakers have continually suggested raising the tax on gasoline to help pay for transportation projects and maintain borrowing levels, but both Walker and Senate Republicans are opposed to the gas tax or vehicle registration fee increases.

Passing a tax on freight traffic would mimic similar plans, Loudenbeck said, and take into account monitor miles traveled with a fuel tax, currently in place due to agreements between the United States and Canada. The plan could also monitor intrastate traffic, rather than only focusing the tax on trucks leaving the state.

Under the plan currently implemented in Kentucky, which Loudenbeck's initial proposal is modeled after, heavy trucks are taxed 2.85 cents per-mile. New Mexico, New York and Oregon all have some variations of a per-mile fee on trucks.

Loudenbeck and other JFC members are unsure as to when a budget vote is expected, with a deadline of June 30 fast approaching. The state's budget will remain at current levels if no agreement is reached during ongoing negotiations.

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