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Politics of paying for transportation: Hand wringing and a lot of talk

politicianGiving further credence to the idea that to everything there is a season, a Mississippi legislator may find more job security driving a loaded-down tractor trailer over a crumbling bridge in the Delta than supporting a full fix for roads and bridges at the outset of the 2015 election season.

Even beyond the 2015 elections, it’s hardly guaranteed that Mississippi’s elected leaders can find a politically safe way to embrace new fees and taxes to fund a backlog of road and bridge maintenance projected to be more than $ 2 billion, political scientists say.

At the midpoint of the second decade of the new century, swearing allegiance to infrastructure upkeep can dangerously lower office holders’ re-election chances,  say University of Mississippi political science Chair John Bruce and Marty Wiseman, who retired last fall as director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government after two decades in the post.

» READ MORE —  ONE MORE YEAR: Leaders want year more of study on comprehensive road, bridge upkeep

The risk is that you’ll invite the most frightening new verb in the political dictionary – “primaried,” Bruce and Wiseman said in recent interviews.

It’s a Red State thing, Bruce noted.

“The broadest notion is that in the political climate in Mississippi and pretty much everywhere else with Republican control, we don’t spend money. The policy is: ‘We’re doing too much. We must do less.’”

It’s “just a non-starter” for a Red State politician to say: “We need to raise a lot of money,” Bruce added.

“It can haunt them in the Republican primaries,” he said.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Lamar County Republican and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has scored high conservative points on both social and fiscal issues since arriving in the Legislature 14 years ago. So he is unlikely to lose sleep at night worrying about a challenge from the right. But he does not ignore potential political consequences, Fillingane said in addressing the political burden that voting for new road and bridge money could create.

“There are always political aspects to what we do.”

Even before the emergence of Tea Party politics aimed at searching out and destroying those supportive of new spending, the long term nature of road and bridge improvements made them hard to sell, Bruce of ’Ole Miss said.

“Twelve months is forever in a political conversation,” Bruce explained. “Infrastructure is not sexy. It is over the horizon.”

At least until a bridge falls down, he added.

“This is not an issue of the Legislature or governor acting in bad faith. It is a fixture of government.”

In Bruce’s native Texas, a longstanding “farm-to-market” transportation policy has “taken the decision-making out of the legislature’s hands,” thus ensuring that sufficient dollars are designated yearly to keep up with transportation needs.

Mississippi, on the other hand, must have a catalyst to create momentum for new transportation spending. It could come from business leaders providing highly visible support, Bruce said. “The cover is going to have to come from business.”’

Mississippi’s business leaders say they need another year to think things over.

But the 2015 session could force them to decide between the business tax cuts legislative leaders have been hinting at or keeping the Treasury flush enough for a serious discussion of road and bridge bond money in 2016, Bruce said.

It’s not difficult to pick a winner in that instance, he added.

“Nobody is going to win by saying, ‘Let’s defer cutting taxes and economic development’ “and instead say, ‘Let’s go build bridges.’ Where is the ‘gee whiz’ in that?”

Picking bridge repairs over tax cuts is like flossing: It may be good for you but not much fun, Bruce noted.

Not only are tax cuts the low-hanging fruit that politicians love to pick, they could represent political survival for Mississippi’s GOP office holders, regardless of how ill-advised, according to Wiseman.

“Pressure from the Tea Party has terrified the traditional Republicans so that they are now talking tax cuts, when that is the last thing they should be doing,” he said.

“I don’t know how they are going to do anything in the years ahead” with a tax cut coming, Wiseman added, referring to not only increases in transportation funding but education and health care as well.

It could be, Wiseman said, that a new season will eventually set in and take legislators and other state leaders by surprise.

Suddenly, they’ll find themselves “between a rock and hard place,” he said.

“Highways and bridges have always been near and dear to citizens throughout the state.”

The pride Mississippi voters felt with the $3 billion in highway building after passage of 1987’s 18 cents-a-gallon motor fuels tax “is wearing thin,” Wiseman added.

“They’ll get past this election, then time is going to start running out on them.”

But for now, said Wiseman, “We’ll see a lot of hand wringing and a lot of talk about what we have got to do.”



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