One of the last things the Senate did before adjourning the first week of April was pass a resolution forming a committee to study revenues and expenditures deemed necessary to expand and maintain Mississippi’s highways.
The committee will have 19 members, and its findings will be presented to the entire Legislature next session.
Members have to be selected by the first week of May, and chairpersons have to be selected within two weeks of the membership being finalized.
Members will be drawn from private entities like the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, advocacy group Citizens for a Better Mississippi, the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and the Mississippi Trucking Association.
Several members of Senate committees will serve, as will designees from the Mississippi Department of Transportation and several other state agencies. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will also appoint one member of the Senate to serve on the committee.
Legislation that would have added to Mississippi’s flat, 18-cent per gallon tax on gasoline and diesel failed in the session that just ended. One bill that died would have made added to the 18-cent tax an additional charge equal to 6 percent of the wholesale cost of a gallon of gas, to be recalculated every six months. Another would have earmarked a portion of casino payout taxes — up to $35 million — for the highway fund.
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall has been the most vocal political champion of doing something to increase the revenue available for highway maintenance via the fuel tax.
The 18-cent tax was set in 1987 as part of the state’s comprehensive highway program. With more fuel-efficient cars on the road and the cost of roadbuilding increasing, Hall told the Mississippi Business Journal last fall that there’s not enough money available to keep the state’s highways in appropriate condition.
“Back then, gas cost a dollar,” Hall said. “If we had made it a percentage we would not have this problem now.”
Mississippi Roadbuilders Association executive director Mike Pepper echoed Hall earlier in the legislative session.
“What state agency or groups are still running on a budget they had crafted in 1987?” Pepper said. “Very few. It’s finally catching up. The cars are getting better gas mileage, construction costs are doubling and tripling, more than that in some instances. It’s come to a head. I don’t think there’s a member of mine that would not agree with MDOT becoming more efficient,” Pepper said. “But you can save all the money in the world, but it’s still not a highway program. You could save millions of dollars, but we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Several states have enacted some kind of mechanism to increase their pool of money available for highway construction and maintenance. Aside from directly raising fuel taxes, some states have increased vehicle registration fees or other privilege costs.
There has been little political will to take on the issue here, though, as any increase in taxes has been considered dead on arrival at the Capitol the last handful of sessions. The House in the session that just wrapped declined to pass a similar measure to the one forming the Senate-driven committee. That resolution would have formed a committee made up of members designated by House and Senate leadership, to go with the other appointments.