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The leader of Wisconsin’s oldest statewide tax policy research organization says La Crosse County might have better luck funding highway maintenance with a wheel tax than with a proposed tourism sales tax.

Todd Berry mug

Berry

Established for a handful of communities heavily dependent on tourism, the premier resort area tax — or PRAT — is a sales tax on goods and services related to tourism that local municipalities can apply to roads and other infrastructure.

In April, 55 percent of county voters approved a non-binding referendum on the half-cent sales tax, but three big steps remain, since the county doesn’t rely that heavily on tourism: state legislation, a two-thirds vote by the county board, and approval by a second county-wide referendum.

“I just don’t know if you could clear all those hurdles,” Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, told a group of community and business leaders at a lunch hosted by the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the PRAT.

The tax would apply to taxable items sold by roughly half the county’s businesses. The county estimates a PRAT would generate about $6.5 million a year, a quarter of which would be shared with its 18 municipalities, and would help address an estimated $87 million in road maintenance needs.

Berry suggested adopting a local vehicle registration fee — known as a “wheel tax” — would be an easier way of closing the funding gap, which has grown at both state and local levels as the flat tax on gasoline sales and vehicle registration fees have failed to keep pace with inflation and an aging highway system.

“It’s the way other municipalities are going,” Berry said.

Easier, but perhaps not as politically palatable.

The La Crosse County board debated a wheel tax in 2014 and 2015, though it never came to a vote. Based on the number of vehicles currently registered, it would require an additional $66 per vehicle to raise the same amount as the tourism sales tax. That’s nearly twice the current $75 state registration fee.

“If you think opposition to PRAT is crazy, you should see people’s reaction to a wheel tax,” said La Crosse County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson.

Johnson said the county hopes to have a bill introduced in the Legislature this fall.

Berry pointed out that local governments, constrained by levy limits and shrinking state aid, have few options to meet growing lists of road maintenance needs: namely, a wheel tax, borrowing and special levies, which would require a voter referendum.

The problem is hardly local, though.

A report released earlier this year by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau revealed about 12 percent of La Crosse County’s roads are in poor or worse condition, though conditions are more dire in 14 other counties.

Much of the backbone highway system is now 50 years old and approaching the end of its natural life, while gas taxes and registration fees have not risen and don’t grow with the economy. To make matters worse, Wisconsin’s population is aging, and thus driving fewer miles, even as vehicles are becoming more efficient, thus using less gas.

“It’s a dated revenue system” trying to support “a dated transportation system,” Berry said.

Under the past two governors, Wisconsin has relied more heavily on borrowing to fund transportation, and the result is that one out of every five dollars in the current transportation budget goes to pay back loans for work that’s already done.

Berry thinks the ultimate solution will likely come from metering use, noting that toll roads are common in other states and the idea is not as toxic as it once was among state lawmakers.

“The public is ahead of politicians,” he said.

Meanwhile, Berry notes, a recent study showed deteriorating roads cost drivers in the state’s two largest cities more than $2,000 a year in the form of crashes, wear and tear, and lost time.

“The money comes out of one pocket or another,” he said.

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Reporter

Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things.

(7) comments

Buggs Raplin

Meanwhile the DOT is hard at work planning a road through the marsh that is unwanted by the people of La Crosse.

Cassandra

Chippy finally emerged from his basement where he has been hiding out and ignoring the hurricanes and other symptoms of climate change. He's just like the groundhog!

Cassandra

There are plenty of simple solutions. There just aren't simple solutions that republicans will get behind. They will only support ideas that put the burden on workers and free up money for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

LaCrosseTaxPayer

How about spending less other than raising taxes!
How about stopping the latest trend of traffic circles that take property off the tax role and slows the response time for emergency vehicles because someone that’s a good old boy wants to slow traffic going past their house.
Lets cut the dumb curb push outs that makes it imposable to make a right turn if pulling a trailer and pushing bikes out into the lane of traffic.
How about the raised islands in the center of the roads that makes it a night mare for the plow truck drivers and pushes traffic onto the parking lanes and in many cases loss of needed parking.
Stop unneeded roads and pet projects like the north south highway that people voted we did NOT want or need and use the money to fix the roads we have!
How about taking some of the local revenue from traffic tickets and putting it into road repairs.

Cassandra

How about spending some money on remedial English classes for LaCrosseTaxPayer ?

Plan B

We users need to pay for the roads we use. Right now it's at 30% so it would seem that an an additional $75 should be a no brainer. Actually should be an extra $200. At $75 we could also charge the bicyclists a registration fee. Since we spend 4% on them we could add a $3 fee for them. That would fix a lot of roads.

canman

Wheel taxes and higher vehicle registration fees are the worst ideas of trying to revenue due to the limited number of vehicles. The only fair tax is a fuel tax, which is a user tax. The more miles you drive the more you pay, it also has the least impact on the person who drives less. Also, with a fuel tax, every one buying fuel in Wisconsin contributes to roads, not just residents. A fuel tax can be shown to be the most economical of all other choices with simple math, apparently Todd Berry's math skills are like Scooter's, non existent.

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