Constitutional amendment seems crazy, but it might make sense | Wisconsin State Journal

By: Chris Rickert

At first blush, amending the state’s founding document to protect something as pedestrian as funding for the Department of Transportation just doesn’t have the kind of wow factor I look for in a constitutional amendment.

But then, we’re an old democracy and maybe most of the really good amendments — free speech, the right to privacy, women’s suffrage, etc. — have been taken.

Constitutionally enshrining transportation certainly isn’t as dumb as, say, banning gay marriage or making English the official language or lots of other proposed amendments over the years.

In 2011, the DOT amendment passed the Legislature by wide bipartisan margins. It passed the Assembly again on Tuesday and will need to pass the Senate again this session before going to a statewide vote, probably in November 2014.

It reserves transportation-related taxes such as the motor fuel tax and license registration fees for transportation projects — and that’s transportation in a broad sense.

People worried about our car-centric culture and its effect on global warming can take heart that, in theory at least, DOT can spend as much on alternative-fuel-powered mass transit as it does on eight-lane highways.

Plus, seeing as how we don’t have a mandatory bike registration tax or toll booths dotting our sidewalks to help pay for the wear and tear of hoofing it to work, one could argue the amendment is partly about using taxes on environment-destroying transit to subsidize environment-protecting transit.

The amendment’s catch-all definition of transportation is partly why the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club isn’t fighting it, although it will “if (mass) transit is removed from the transportation fund,” said Shahla Werner, director of the John Muir Chapter of the organization.

Indeed, groups as diverse as conservative policy pusher American Legislative Exchange Council and legislative Democrats are either in favor of it or neutral.

The most pushback I’ve seen came from the money-in-politics watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which last month pointed out that the industries with the most to gain from the amendment — manufacturers and road builders — are the same ones giving tons of money to the politicians who are championing the amendment, though in this case, the objectives of deep-pocketed campaign contributors might actually reflect our own.

Because unless this “sustainability” trend really catches on and we can survive with little more than a backyard composter and a couple of chickens, we will rely on the state’s transportation infrastructure to deliver many of the basic necessities of life.

That the amendment amounts to “a form of protection that nobody else gets,” as WDC executive director Mike McCabe put it, isn’t the same as saying transportation isn’t worth protecting.

Besides, a car-centric transportation infrastructure already enjoys plenty of protection from a citizenry that regularly eschews biking, mass transit and walking for getting behind the wheel.

This article was originally published by the Wisconsin State Journal on February 14, 2013.