Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials
Posted 11:36 a.m. Monday
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 16
Donald Trump's budget makes clear he doesn't care about the Great Lakes
Last week, we wrote that "cutting Great Lakes funding from $300 million to $10 million, as the Trump administration reportedly is considering, is unacceptable." Turns out that $10 million figure was optimistic.
The bad news dropped with the Trump budget released this week: The president is wiping out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and asking the states to take on the work.
What's worse than "unacceptable"?
House Speaker Paul Ryan needs to step up, as does Sen. Ron Johnson and the entire Wisconsin delegation in Congress, to make sure this program vital to the health of the lakes and to Wisconsin isn't flushed away. They and other Republicans should follow the lead of Gov. Scott Walker, who, to his credit, said he opposed the cut and wants to "protect funding that's prudent."
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is not some feel-good program that's nice to have in the budget. Since its inception in 2010, the program has been used to support more than 3,000 restoration projects "to improve water quality, protect and restore native habitat, clean up environmentally-impaired areas of concern, fight invasive species and prevent beach closings," as a Feb. 17 letter from 50 House members noted in urging full funding for the initiative.
In a statement asking Walker if he's willing to take on the responsibility and funding, Sen. Tammy Baldwin said the program has been beneficial for Wisconsin: It has "invested $331 million for 416 projects in Wisconsin. It has helped the state combat the growth of invasive species like Asian carp and zebra mussels, which pose a major threat to the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes by devastating the food chain and causing major damage to our ports, pipes and water infrastructure. It has also helped our state clean up polluted sites and restore water quality in Wisconsin.
And there's this: Last September, at a presidential campaign forum hosted by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, Trump campaign representative Mike Budzik said Trump was going to make the Great Lakes great again, according to the Detroit Free Press. "He knows the successes that have come from the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations that have been put into place that have been guiding us along," Budzik said of Trump. "There are some things, I think, that could possibly change. But I believe, in the end, he is going to stand up for a clean environment."
Not so much. In addition to eliminating the initiative, Trump's budget slashes funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by about a third and will eliminate about 50 other programs.
No state can handle this job. It's simply too big. A national treasure of fresh water on which 30 million people rely for their drinking water, health, jobs and recreation requires a national effort to make sure it is restored to full health.
In a release, Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said the Trump administration budget is "a total non-starter."
He's right. And Ryan, Walker, Johnson and others need to send the same message.
Wisconsin State Journal, March 18
Don't let Trump dump Great Lakes protection
One of the things former President Barack Obama did relatively well was protecting the Great Lakes from pollution and invasive species.
That's probably because Obama lived in and represented Chicago — on the shores of Lake Michigan — before moving to the White House. He understood the positive impact this gigantic system of freshwater lakes has on the Midwest's economy and quality of life.
President Donald Trump is from the top of a tower in New York City. He spent some time campaigning in the Midwest during his successful presidential campaign, winning the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
But he clearly doesn't get the priorities of the region.
Trump just proposed eliminating $300 million a year in federal funding for ongoing restoration of the Great Lakes. His proposal is a short-sighted and alarming move that Wisconsin's congressional delegation should adamantly oppose.
Gov. Scott Walker quickly opposed Trump's punishing cut, which is reassuring.
"It makes sense for us to continue to make prudent investments in protecting and improving the Great Lakes," the governor said. "It's one of those where it's a combination of quality of life, certainly in terms of access to the greatest fresh water supply in the world, but also it's an economic impact. Commercial fishing, tourism, so many of those things tie in to a healthy and vibrant Great Lakes system."
And the federal investment leverages far more money from local governments and Canada for lake protection. This cooperation has helped defend the Great Lakes against invasive species — including the giant and voracious Asian carp — that would decimate native fish and hurt tourism.
The federal dollars also help reduce algae blooms that foul shorelines and have created an oxygen-deprived dead zone in Green Bay. Other threats include toxic waste from industrial sites, city sewers and farms.
Trump's federal budget doesn't spend less money overall. He's simply prioritizing a massive and unnecessary increase in military spending over dire needs here at home.
Trump's budget shows he doesn't care about the Great Lakes. Wisconsin must unite against his reckless budget plan to show him the Midwest most definitely does.
Green Bay Press-Gazette March 18
User fees hike key to roads funding
As the road construction season looms in Wisconsin, so do negotiations on Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal for transportation.
The governor unveiled his two-year budget in February and called for spending $6.1 billion on transportation. Counties and municipalities would get an increase in state transportation aid, and major highway projects already underway would remain on schedule.
That's all good news. However, the state would have to borrow $500 million to get there. In the last two-year budget, Walker proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing and the Legislature knocked that down to $850 million.
While $500 million is a lot less, we take issue with bonding to pay for roads when there are other avenues for funding.
The problem is, Walker is unwilling to travel down that path. He won't consider an increase in the gas tax or registration fees unless there's a similar offset in the budget.
Even some Republican legislators are willing to look at hikes in the gas tax and/or registration. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, recently said he would consider diverting money from the general fund to transportation.
Meanwhile, last summer the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported the state faced a $939 million gap over the next two years between the highway projects that are planned and the expected revenue.
With the major, ongoing road projects — Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee, Verona Road south of Madison, U.S. 10/441 and Wisconsin 15 in the Fox Cities — and the fact that our interstate system, built in the 1950s and '60s, is nearing the end of its 50-year lifespan and needs to be rebuilt, we need to find more highway funding.
To do nothing isn't an option. A Legislative Audit Bureau audit released in January pointed out that only 41 percent of the state highways were in good condition in 2015, down from 53.5 percent in 2010.
Forty-two percent of the roads in Wisconsin are in poor/mediocre condition, compared with 14 percent in Minnesota, according to the U.S. News & World Report. Wisconsin's road quality ranking was No. 49.
There are some things that the state Legislature should consider to boost transportation fund revenue without resorting to borrowing. We believe that user fees — such as a motor fuel tax and registration fees — are the best way to help pay for road maintenance and construction.
Since 2014 when the state wisely passed a law to prevent raiding the transportation fund, we're now assured that money raised through user fees will go toward transportation projects. More than $1 billion was removed from the transportation fund from 2001-11 for general fund shortfalls.
Some of the options include:
At the very least, the state should look to index the gasoline tax to the rate of inflation.
The current rate, 30.9 cents per gallon, was instituted in 2006, when the state ended the practice of automatically indexing the fuel tax. A flat rate doesn't make sense when other costs, like road construction, are subject to changes in inflation.
The state could also look to increase the fuel tax. A 1-cent increase would bring in about $33 million a year. That would still make us comparable with Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. In fact, Iowa increased its fuel tax 10 cents a gallon in 2015, expecting to bring in $215 million a year.
The state must address the gas tax because vehicles are getting better gas mileage and that cuts into the revenues from this user fee. Plus any reduction in vehicle use will further cut into revenue.
REGISTRATION AND LICENSE FEES
Increase the vehicle registration and driver's license fees by $1. The Associated Press reported that this would bring in $4.4 million and $1.1 million annually. That's $5.5 million out of a $6 billion budget, but it's still worth pursuing.
The state could even look at registration fees based on the value of the vehicle. For example, could that state charge a percentage of the manufacturer suggested retail price of a vehicle to register it? Or factor in the weight of a vehicle?
Tollways are another user tax, however, new tolls are prohibited by law. It would take federal authorization to convert the state's 875 miles of interstate to tollways.
The revenue generated from them makes it tempting. One DOT study put annual net revenue at $372 million if drivers were charged 4 cents per mile.
The state needs to put some of the DOT audit recommendations into practice. This includes getting at least two bids on all construction contracts, budgeting only projects it can fund and using established performance measure goals for construction and maintenance.
Plus, the state needs to finish projects that are underway, not delay them, before taking on new projects.
The highway funding problem is one Wisconsin has to solve. Even though President Donald Trump promised to rebuild roads, we can't wait on the federal government to bail us out. Trump's budget cuts transportation funding, though the Trump administration is said to be putting together a $1 billion infrastructure program.
While no one likes to pay more in fuel taxes or registration fees, everyone likes to drive on good roads and not be stuck in traffic on outdated highways not built to handle the crush of vehicles that use them.
The Legislature needs to get creative in its funding and to consider increasing the fees of those who use the roads.