To repair our shoddy roads, why not tax Illinois tourists on the way in to Wisconsin? Here’s why not.
BY PETER CAMERON
If you’re a Wisconsin resident, you know all about the honking migration that happens every summer. Not the Flying Vs of Canada Geese flapping through our state to return home, but the fleets of SUVs bearing Illinois license plates that come to camp in our parks, splash in our lakes and drive like the FIBs that they are.
Why doesn’t the state of Wisconsin put a toll booth RIGHT on the border and soak those southerners for a buck each time they cross the line? Let THEM pay for our crumbling roads. They use them enough.
For one, a border toll might be unconstitutional. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Before our nation created and adopted the Constitution, the states were fighting trade wars with each other.
Many Wisconsinites probably would like to do the same and charge a FIB tax, nailing every vehicle without a Wisconsin license plate with a toll. But that is “almost certain to be unconstitutional,” Chad Oldfather, a constitutional law professor and associate dean at the Marquette University Law School, wrote to The Badger Project in an email.
“States cannot pass laws that expressly discriminate against out-of-state commerce unless they’ve got a really good reason for doing so and can show that there’s no other way to act on that reason,” he said.
For example, Wisconsin could potentially ban firewood from other states based on concerns it might bring with it a devastating pest like the ash borer, Oldfather said.
But Wisconsin could not honestly say there was no other way to pay for our roads other than to toll out-of-staters. We could put tolls well-within our border, raise the gas tax, etc.
“Any sort of tolling regime that relies entirely or even disproportionately on tolls at or near the state’s borders is highly likely to be unconstitutional,” Oldfather said, “because it will be a regime that imposes its burdens primarily on interstate as opposed to in-state commerce.”
Also, a toll on the two interstates which cross from Illinois into Wisconsin might just divert traffic from those routes onto the many other roads which cross the border, said Lingqian Hu, a professor and chair at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
And Hu noted it would cost a lot of cash to set up the tolling system. That kind of investment doesn’t make much long-term sense for the state. The I-PASS technology that scans a device as you pass through a reader on the highway will likely be replaced by a device that counts all your mileage via GPS, according to former Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb. He argued for an increased gas tax over tolls in an informative 2018 piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
To further his point, Gottlieb also notes in the piece that the cost to collect taxes on gas is about 1% of total revenue received, while the cost of building and operating a tolling system costs about 23% of total revenue received.
In 2017, the paper reported that then-Gov. Walker was open to the idea of putting a toll booth on the Illinois border. Of course, Scotty knew he was facing a tough reelection in 2018, and needed to be seen as doing something about the poor condition of Wisconsin roads, but didn’t want to annoy voters with a new tax.
It didn’t go anywhere, but it was, in a way, smart politics. An October 2018 poll from the Marquette Law School found that 59 percent of Wisconsin residents say it is more important to keep gas taxes and vehicle registration fees where they are now than raise taxes for road improvements, discouraging vote-hungry politicians from doing so.
This despite the fact that among all 50 states, Wisconsin’s road quality ranked 44th in the country, according to a 2018 U.S. News ranking.
Ultimately, increasing the gas tax probably makes more sense than setting up a tolling infrastructure, even if they were constitutionally-spread throughout the state of Wisconsin.
Unable to launch a trade war against their neighbors to the south, Sconnies will have to get their kicks in through the state’s sports teams’ general dominance over those in the Land of Lincoln.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
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