Budget Committe Nixes Transportaiton Authorities

MacIver News Service | May 3, 2011

[Madison, Wisc…] In his State Budget proposal Governor Scott Walker wanted to eliminate bonding authority for the Southeast Regional Transit Authority (SERTA), but the Joint Finance Committee wanted Wisconsin’s four RTAs eliminated altogether.  It voted 12-4 along party lines on Tuesday to do so.

“The taxpayers have been very vocal in their opposition to the RTA law and its provisions for a special sales tax in some of the RTAs and the SERTA vehicle rental tax,” Rep. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) said in a public plea to the panel. “The current RTA law is fatally flawed and lacks public support,”

Over the past few years Chequamegon Bay, the Chippewa Valley, Dane County, and Southeast Wisconsin established RTAs to coordinate and fund public transportation on a regional level.  However, funding was a challenge from the beginning.

SERTA had originally sought an $18 vehicle rental tax.  The car rental industry complained that would, in some cases, double the cost of renting a car.  As the MacIver News Service reported in 2009, SERTA decided against the tax for a different reason.  It didn’t think the rental tax would be an adequate source of funding. Instead, it wanted a .5 percent regional sales tax.  The other three RTAs were also leaning towards that solution.

However, the idea of RTAs levying a sales tax created a new issue.  The boards overseeing the RTAs are not elected, and critics were uncomfortable with giving an unelected body the power to raise taxes.  Last year, the Democratically-controlled legislature passed a law allowing the RTAs to levy the tax.

Supporters of the RTAs knew this legislative session was going to be a challenge. Governor Walker and the Republican led legislature, which took office in January 2011, have expressed concern with the idea that a non-elected board had the power to levy taxes.  There was little surprise when the Joint Finance Committee decided to eliminate the RTAs on Tuesday, but it did result in a light barrage from the left.

“A regional transit authority not only would have helped recruit new employers and residents to our area, but it would have been key to providing current and future residents with a balanced transportation system to get them from point A to point B,” Joe Parisi, Dane County Executive said.

The group, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, attempted to portray the decision as eliminating public transportation in the state altogether, something the JFC did not do.

“The removal of Regional Transit Authorities is just the latest move by this legislature to kill transit in Wisconsin. It is an unnecessary move that will ensure that thousands of transit dependent workers will be disconnected from their jobs,” said Steve Hiniker, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

In general, however, eliminating the RTAs did not generate as much public outcry as other recent actions by the legislature.  Even 1000 Friends of Wisconsin’s press release did not focus exclusively on the RTAs, seemingly content to add it to their growing list of grievances with the new governor.

The Joint Finance Committee reconvenes on Thrusday to continue voting on budget-related motions.