The Mississippi Senate Highway Study Committee’s search for answers to funding upkeep of roads and bridges may well end in Arkansas, where voters last year approved a half-penny, 10-year sales tax projected to raise $1.8 billion for highway projects.
Committee Chair Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, has not declared a front runner in the recommendations the study panel will make to the full Legislature in January. But the heads of two key stakeholder groups – farmers and poultry processors – are quick to cite the Arkansas solution as a possible fix for catching up with unmet road and bridge maintenance.
“I have heard several things that I think are workable,” said Randy Knight, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.
Arkansas’ half-cent sales tax is appealing because “it kind of gets everybody,” he said, and it expires after 10 years.
Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, attributed the November 2012 passage of the Arkansas sales tax to creation of Mississippi’s Senate’s Highway Study Committee, a task force made up of members of both the Senate and House and representatives of transportation-dependent industries as well as citizen stakeholders.
Leggett said Arkansas’ success “added a lot of oomph” to a campaign for a dedicated source of transportation maintenance money led by Dick Hall, Mississippi Department of Transportation Central District commissioner.
Knight and Leggett said regardless of whether an Arkansas-style sales tax or some other method is selected, it is important that a sizable chunk of money raised goes to cities and counties, whose deteriorating roads and bridges make it difficult to efficiently transport crops and poultry.
Framers of the Arkansas measure addressed local needs by allocating 70 percent of the half-cent to the state Highway Department and designating the remainder to be divided by cities and counties.
Whatever way Mississippi decides to divvy up any share of new road revenue, the state will need up to $400 million for current road and bridge upkeep and an additional $300 million annually after that, according to Hall.
Simmons said the state is taking an important step toward efficient allocation of any new maintenance money through a Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, examination of where MDOT is putting its current dollars and spending its allocations.
Simmons’ Highway Study Committee called on the Legislature’s PEER after the study panel completed 70 percent to 75 percent of work geared toward identifying maintenance needs. Completing that foundation led to a need to examine “where the dollars we’re currently collecting are going and how they are being utilized,” Simmons said.
“We began to have questions whether MDOT was being a good steward of the dollars it was receiving. So we asked PEER” to take look, he added.
The senator said he personally does not think “there is a problem in that area” based on his work with MDOT.
But, he added, whether the questions “are myths or misinformation, those perspectives are there.”
The PEER assessment, he said, will strengthen his committee’s hand in getting legislative action on whatever recommendations it makes.
He expects the assessment will make special note of the consequences of legislators not providing designated transportation maintenance money when they enacted the 18.4 cents a gallon motor fuels tax in 1987.
Of money generated by the 18.4 cents, 68 percent goes to MDOT.
And on occasion, the state grabs back some of MDOT’s allocation. The state took $300 million a few years ago to cover a Medicaid shortfall. “We never paid them back,” Simmons said, while noting a $300 million injection “would solve a lot of problems” for MDOT.
What would work?
Simmons said he is unsure his committee will have a single recommendation to present when it delivers its proposals to lawmakers in January. “But we hope we do,” he said.
In formulating its recommendations, the special committee will work with the TI Coalition, a group made up of representatives of business, industry, economic development interests, cities, counties and state agencies. The Coalition has joined the Mississippi Economic Council on its current town hall road tour around the state.
“We want to know what they are hearing,” Simmons said, “so we can have several different options that we can put into the legislative process.”
Former legislator Charlie Williams, who left the state House in 1999 after nearly a quarter century in office, will help get the issue in front of legislators. “Based on what we hear from these meetings” on the MEC tour “we will work with leaders to develop both short- and long-term funding proposals for the Legislature to consider,” said Williams, who served as former Gov. Haley Barbour’s chief of staff from 2004 to 2007 and now heads Butler Snow’s Government Relations Section.
Williams’ emphasized that the TI Coalition’s interests go beyond money for road and bridge upkeep. The Coalition’s focus is on improving the entire transportation infrastructure: roads, rails, ports and air.
The T1 Coalition wants all viable options on the table, according to Williams.
One option Commissioner Hall wants on the table is adjusting the current tax from the 18.4 cents per gallon to a per-gallon percentage that would capture more revenue as the price of a gallon of gasoline rises.
That would be just for starters, he said. “Down the road the answer is going to be a ‘VMT,’” or Vehicle Miles Traveled, fee.
“People accepted the gas tax as a user fee and that’s what this is,” Hall said of the VMT.
The transportation commissioner conceded a privacy issue could arise from the highway-use monitoring but insisted “that can be solved.”
The head of the Mississippi Road Builders Association likewise looks at the state’s road maintenance deficit as a use issue. For every $2 Mississippi’s motor fuel tax raises, roads and bridges endure $10 of use wear and tear “when you consider how much more traffic and how much heavier” the cars and trucks are today, said Mike Pepper, MRBA executive director.
This, he said, “is why you have a half-billion dollars of repairs needed for bridges and roads and why your highways are full of ruts.”