Big Change #5: More Money for Highways, Less for Everything Else
If there was a significant winner in last year’s budget, it was state highways. In essence, resources were taken from Wisconsin’s public schools, university system, and health care for working families and redirected toward state highway spending.
The budget required that the state make a series of transfers from the state’s General Fund – which supports most state functions – to the state’s Transportation Fund. The state transferred $22.5 million from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund last fiscal year, and is scheduled to transfer another $137.6 million this year. That’s a total of $160.1 million in transfers from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund over two years. (To put that amount in context, Governor Walker turned down a federal grant for high-speed rail because the state would have had to spend $7.5 million per year from the Transportation Fund in support of rail service.)
What made the transfers particularly problematic is that they came at a time when the state had a large General Fund deficit, even before these funding shifts were put on the table. Using General Fund dollars for highway spending dug a deeper hole for legislators to fill and resulted in larger cuts in areas like education and human services.
Proponents of these transfers argue that they make up for past occasions when budgets transferred money from the Transportation Fund to the General Fund. Highways are important to the state’s economic growth, but by shifting such a significant amount of money into the Transportation Fund, the budget prioritized investment in transportation infrastructure over investment in human infrastructure.
Within the transportation budget, highway spending was the big winner, and local governments were the losers. As highways got significantly more funding, lawmakers cut $17.5 million from transportation aid over two years for things such as local road repairs, and mass transit aid was cut by $9.6 million.
A strong transportation system is important for Wisconsin’s citizens and for our economy, but that transportation system needs to serve all Wisconsinites. As policymakers shape the next state budget, we hope they will support a well balanced transportation system, and will do so without continuing to tap General Fund dollars that are desperately needed in other areas of the budget.
Tamarine Cornelius and Jon Peacock