Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

The Curious Case of Jon Erpenbach

It goes without saying that people in America think their politicians lie.  In fact, it’s a concept ingrained in the very fabric of our culture.  Books, plays and songs have been written as encomiums to political dishonesty – it’s almost as central a concept to our government as Congress itself.

Yet when politicians fib, it’s usually in broad terms.  They say things like, “I’m going to lower your taxes,” or “I think it would be a bad idea to let criminals out of prison,” or “my, what a pretty baby!”  But it Wisconsin, we have an odd example of a politician being dishonest with the people that elected him on a very specific issue.

On February 23, 2009, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed the fact that Governor Jim Doyle is swiping the $10 fee Wisconsin has been collecting since 2008 to implement the federal “Real ID” act, in order to “balance” the state budget.  So here we have a fee being collected for one purpose, and being used for another – to the tune of $12.5 million.

Bruce Redenz at Badger Blogger decided to do what everyone should do when a story of misuse of public funds occurs – he contacted his state senator, Jon Erpenbach.  Erpenbach, apparently thinking he was talking to someone without an internet connection, sent this reply via mail:

When the State of Wisconsin collects money through taxes or fees, all of the money that is collected is put into General Purpose Revenue (GPR.)  Money is then used in budgeting and dispersed to different programs from the GPR.

The ten dollar driver’s license renewal fee that you have mentioned is one of those that is put into GPR.  Since the money goes to the GPR we are unable to pinpoint a specific program that the money supports, except to say that it supports many programs that we as a society have decided to support.

This is 100% false.

As everyone who has anything to do with state government knows, the Real ID fee attached to driver’s licenses is deposited in the transporation fund, which is a segregated account.  Segregated accounts exist specifically because they don’t intermingle funds with the General Fund.  The Legislative Fiscal Bureau pointed this out clearly in their 2007-09 budget summary, when the fee was passed (see page 4 of the .pdf document.)  The fee is categorized as “SEG-REV,” which indicates it is revenue to the transportation fund, which, of course, never touches GPR.  The fee was collected for a certain purpose and was never intended to be used for “many programs that we as a society have decided to support.”

There are really only two explanations here.  Either Jon Erpenbach has no clue how state funds are collected and dispersed, or he’s purposely using false information to mislead his constituents.  Neither explanation inspires confidence in a state senator who is trying furiously to sell us a $15 billion state government health insurance takeover.  Apparently, his standard for facts is whatever he can think of at the time.

On the one hand, stealing funds from the transportation fund is commonplace – it’s part of what has driven the state into a $5.9 billion deficit.  People could argue whether state money is in one account or the other is mere semantics.  But this is Erpenbach’s whole argument in support of the transfer – and it’s based on a mistruth.   Erpenbach wasn’t just asked this question by a reporter on the spot – he had time to research it and think about how he wanted to portray this issue to his constitutents.  And he still got it dead wrong.

Imagine the constituent service people get who don’t actually know anything about state government.

1 Comment

  1. germantown_kid

    March 12, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Is there any surprise here? Wisconsin Democrats are notorious for capturing every tax penny and finding creative ways for for finding new tax funds without ever cutting any spending. Next, they will tax breatheable air.

    The automatic gasoline tax was a classic example. Politicians–on both sides–brought in new tax monies w/o ever voting on it. Both sides could then claim: we did not raise any taxes.

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