A proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution got a boost Tuesday from the voters in all of the 53 counties that put the proposal to an advisory vote. The measure would prevent state lawmakers from transferring dollars from the Transportation Fund to use for other purposes. Governor Dole and the legislature used such transfers to help the state close holes in the General Fund budget, to the consternation of highway builders and other supporters of transportation spending.
Advisory referendums often don't have much impact, but in this case I think the proposal has an excellent chance of becoming part of the state constitution.
Support for the measure was strong in all 53 counties, ranging from 61.5 percent in Trempealeau County to 85 percent in Dodge County. It is likely to be taken up by the legislature early in the session, but if it’s approved (which appears likely) it will need to be passed again during the 2013-14 legislative session, and then must be ratified in a statewide referendum.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the measure. In general, I’m leery of using the state constitution to create absolute bars on the budget options available for our elected officials. Are we entirely confident that there will never be a fiscal emergency dire enough to justify using transportation taxes for other purposes, even if the tax dollars from that fund are offset with transportation bonding?
An argument against the transfers that makes me somewhat more sympathetic to the amendment is the contention that such transfers are used as short-term funding sources that add to the state’s structural deficit. Since that’s generally true, I think there’s some merit to the argument that eliminating the use of transferred funds could be a small step toward more responsible budget practices.
All of that aside, there’s little question in my mind that the proposed amendment will be approved by the legislature in each of the next two sessions and will be approved in a public referendum in 2013 or 2014.
The Transportation Development Association's press release about the amendment and advisory vote can be found here.