Taxpayers Get Chance to Sound Off on Transportation Fund Raids

MacIver News Service | July 30, 2010

[Madison, Wisc…] Voters in nearly half of Wisconsin’s counties will have an opportunity to sound off on the exceedingly controversial practice of raiding the state’s transportation fund to pay for general state services.

As of this week, 35 counties are planning identically-worded advisory referenda on the topic. The question on the ballot will read:

“Should the Wisconsin Constitution be amended to prohibit any further transfers or lapses from the segregated transportation fund?”

“We are hearing from people all over the state and they are fed up with these budget gimmicks and are grateful that many of the counties are giving them a voice,” Craig Thompson, Executive Director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, told the MacIver Institute.

Ninety two  percent of state funding in the transportation fund came from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees in the 2007-09 biennium., according to the Department of Transportation.

Since 2003, nearly $1.3 billion of the funds, supposedly reserved for maintaining and improving Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure, have been diverted by Governor Doyle and legislature for other uses.

Craig Thompson

Supporters of this referenda initiative want to put an end to such raids. As an advisory referendum, legislative action would still be required in two consecutive legislative sessions before a binding statewide referendum would be held to amend the State Constitution. Organizers believe this is an important first step, however.

“Hopefully, this will translate into decisive action when the next legislature convenes in Madison,” said Thompson.

According to a 2009 report from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau the raids from the last three Budgets have been used to finance a variety of purposes other than those for which the funds were reserved.

“The 2003-05 budget act used a combination of direct appropriations from the transportation fund for general fund programs (shared revenue and K-12 education aids) and a transfer of revenues from the transportation fund to the general fund, for a total of $675.0 million.”

The report continues: “The 2005-07 biennial budget act made a transfer of $427.0 million from the transportation fund to the general fund, but did not make any direct appropriations from the transportation fund to general fund programs.”

Finally, “The 2007-09 budget act (Act 20) and the 2008-09 budget adjustment act (Act 226) together resulted in a transfer of $155 million from the transportation fund to the general fund.“

The six-year total of transfers and appropriations from the transportation fund was $1.257 billion. Adding to it, the current budget includes raids of at least $66 million.

The funds taken out of the transportation fund are offset by increased state borrowing.

The 2009-11 state budget authorizes transportation bonding of $1.304 billion, which is an increase of $767 million in borrowing over the 2007-09 budget, which already was in addition to a 96 percent increase in transportation fund supported bonds between 2002 and 2006, according to another analysis conducted by the LFB.

“County highway departments have seen firsthand the negative impact past transfers have had on the public’s confidence in transportation investment in Wisconsin,” said Daniel J. Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association.

Thompson and Feddrely’s groups are a part of Finding Forward, a broad-based coalition of Wisconsin county and municipal governments, private businesses, organized labor, agriculture, non-profit associations, and other groups, all of which support amending the Wisconsin constitution to prohibit transferring money from the transportation fund to the state’s general fund or for purposes unrelated to transportation.

“The progress of this initiative is very, very encouraging,” Fedderly said. “By voting to place the advisory referendum question on their fall ballots, these counties have said yes to letting citizens make their voices heard on whether the transportation fund should be used only for transportation-related purposes.”

Finding Forward notes a majority of states in the nation currently protect their transportation funds via constitutional provisions.

As of this week, the advisory referendum will appear on the fall election ballot in the following counties:

Eau   Claire
St. Croix

More information about Finding Forward and the campaign to safeguard Wisconsin’s transportation fund is available at