Business groups calling for an efficiency study of the Mississippi Department of Transportation prior to facing up to the undeniable reality that Mississippi doesn’t have a credible funding source to repair the state’s existing roads and bridges – which are deteriorating significantly – are in essence kicking a difficult discussion of restructuring the state’s road and bridge finance system down a decaying road and off a substandard bridge.
What is most interesting in the debate over finding a new and better way to pay for road and bridge repair and construction in Mississippi is the fact that you have a staunch white Republican in Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall singing from the very same political hymnal as a liberal black Democrat in Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.
Simmons has proposed a $700 million tax package and challenged members of a study committee examining road needs to offer their own alternative revenue and spending plans. MDOT officials, most vocally Hall, say the state needs hundreds of millions of dollars a year to repair existing roads and bridges and construct new ones.
Hall stood last month under the Founder’s Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair repeating his call for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax for the second year in a row. Again, Hall pointed out that the state’s anemic gas tax was outdated and had to be updated. Hall worked hard during the 2013 Mississippi legislative session to advance two bills that would have created new revenue for the construction and maintenance of Mississippi’s roads and highways until they died in committee.
In round numbers, Hall said told fairgoers Mississippi has about 4,700 miles of highways in dire need of repair at an estimated current cost of $960 million.
Yet one of the biggest public policy and economic misconceptions in Mississippi is the notion that as gas prices have risen, state gas tax revenues have risen with them. That’s just not the case. Mississippi’s 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax (CPG) is a flat tax. When we paid $1 a gallon for gas, the tax was 18.4 CPG.
When we pay $3.75 per gallon at the pump, the state tax is still 18.4 CPG. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase.
The state’s 18.4 CPG gas tax was last raised in 1987. According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Mississippi’s flat gas tax isn’t keeping pace with the inflation of rising highway construction and maintenance costs and with the modern fuel economy improvements in today’s vehicles.
Notice that Hall, the Republican, identified a higher level of revenue need than did Simmons, the Democrat. So the Mississippi State Senate task force examining the state transportation needs in preparation for a 2014 report will be hard pressed to blame calls for a tax hike for road and bridge finance a partisan issue.
The fact is that many of the groups calling for stalling tactics on a serious discussion of higher gas taxes represent industries that are most responsible for road and bridge deterioration. And MDOT, after several years of running roughshod over legislators, is now seeing some political chickens come home to roost in terms of renewed oversight.
The special interest groups are smart enough to recognize that. But the notion that the state needs more study of our outdated flat gas tax or of the massive need for road and bridge repair and construction statewide ignores what a 100-mile drive in any direction will readily demonstrate.
(Sid Salter is a Daily Corinthian and syndicated columnist. He can be contacted at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)