Republicans search for deal on road funding, ponder $10 increase in vehicle registration fee

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans are eyeing a $10 increase on the $75 vehicle registration fee as part of a mix of funding to pay for roads in the state without raising the gas tax as Gov. Tony Evers proposed, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday.

Republicans are weighing a mix of cash, additional borrowing, title and registration fee increases and higher fees on hybrid cars. Republicans are also giving another look at toll roads, although they have been hesitant to do that in the past because it would take years before any money is generated.

The Legislature's budget-writing committee planned to vote Thursday on the alternative GOP road-funding plan, but as of late Wednesday afternoon Republicans had not coalesced around a final proposal.

Evers proposed increasing transportation funding by $608 million over two years, but Fitzgerald said Republicans were focused more on which road construction projects should go forward versus trying to hit a target funding number.

It wasn't clear if Assembly Republicans were on board with the registration fee increase.

"It's definitely part of the mix and the discussions back and forth between the houses," Fitzgerald told reporters.

Road funding has long divided Republicans and was the issue that delayed passage of the last budget in 2017 until September. That year, Republicans along with then-Gov. Scott Walker opted to borrow about $400 million rather than raise taxes.

Fitzgerald said any borrowing to pay for roads in this budget would be "significantly lower" than in the past.

Evers, along with advocates for bolstering funding for roads, have been pushing for an 8-cent per-gallon gas tax increase which would increase along with inflation as part of a more sustainable, long-term funding solution. His plan also increases heavy truck registration and new car titling fees, but does not raise the $75 vehicle registration fee most car owners pay.

The current gas tax in Wisconsin is 32.9 cents per gallon, which is 11th highest in the country. Under the Evers proposal it would move into the top 10, based on figures compiled by the Tax Foundation. Fitzgerald said Wisconsin was relying too heavily on the gas tax and he wanted to look at other options.

Also on Wednesday, 10 Republican senators proposed a one-time influx of $134 million to pay for county and town roads by tapping revenue reserves.

Fitzgerald called that a "laudable idea" that he considered to be outside the larger transportation budget that lawmakers are currently negotiating.

Both Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget committee, said they remained committed to finding a long-term solution to road funding.

The plan Republican senators unveiled relies on a one-time funding boost, paid for with a portion of a $753 million budget surplus. Under their idea, each of the state's 72 counties would receive $1 million. Towns would then receive $1,000 for each mile in their town, for a total of $61.6 million.

"We want to help our local leaders fix the roads right now," Republican Sen. Howard Marklein said. "We have the money, we heard our constituents and we are taking action."

The idea drew immediate criticism from Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, who noted it does nothing for cities and villages.

"This is not a holistic solution by any means," Deschane said. "We look forward to working with them on a solution that's more fair."