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Shift to fiscal hardliners makes road rough for new transportation money

By TED CARTER

Mississippi’s business leaders may have waited too long – or perhaps not long enough – in targeting winter 2016 for a legislative showdown on how Mississippi pays for upkeep of its roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Today, any comprehensive transportation package that includes new funding is up against a 2016 legislative class with a sizable number of members who won election with vows of no new taxes (or fees). Waiting for the immediacy of those vows to wear off may offer the best chance of getting something done, political analysts say.

Business leaders selected 2016 two years ago, after legislators declined to pursue funding proposals from a task force of elected officials and business and civic leaders. What Mississippi needed, they decided, was a wider and deeper look at its transportation picture.

In stepped the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s Chamber of Commerce, with creation of a new transportation task force. As the MEC-led private-sector executives delved into the state’s transportation issues, candidates for the state House and Senate in all corners of the state started winning voters over with pledges of no new taxes or fees.

So, not surprisingly, many first-time lawmakers and their re-elected counterparts will arrive at the Capitol beholden to pledges of not only no new taxes but no increased spending at all.

If business leaders and their allies want a comprehensive fix to pass, they’ll have to persuade the legislators to break their promises. That is easier to do a year after an election rather than right after one, political pros say in predicting that 2017 may offer better odds for comprehensive transportation legislation.

On the other hand, Mississippi’s business leaders have vowed to push hard for a 2016 overhaul of transportation funding, insisting the state’s economic future hinges on getting something done.

They must persuade members of a Legislature that became even more conservative with the Nov. 3 elections that they should make motorists pay more to cover the estimated $400 million the state needs annually to keep roads and bridges from deteriorating further.

Mississippi’s last did that in 1987, adopting an 18.4 cents a gallon tax on motor fuels that helped to pay for an 1,800-mile network of four-lane highways that made the state the envy of its Southern neighbors. Today, transportation experts say, an absence of maintenance money has left stretches of the parkways crumbling and a vast number of bridges too risky to cross. Some estimates are that catching up will run $2 billion.

Coming off a legislative revenue conference that projected a 1.9 percent increase in state revenue in 2016, Senate Finance Committee Chair Joey Fillingane said he is going to have to know a lot more than he does now before saying what sort of funding package he would let come up for a vote in his committee. What the Republican from Hattiesburg said he does know is that he does not need to be convinced of the severity of Mississippi’s road-and-bridge maintenance backlog.

A legislatively appointed task force urged $600 million in new transportation spending in 2013. That proposal died quickly but led to a pledge from key legislators and business leaders to return with a comprehensive transportation study that identifies state needs and presents options for covering their costs.

In the next week or so, a 15-member transportation task force created by the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s Chamber of Commerce, is expected to present its report to legislators.

Soon after creation of the MEC panel, its chairman, Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson Jr., said the state’s business leaders will lead the push. “It’s going to be easier for elected officials to deal with this more effectively if they have the support of business leaders,” Sanderson, who heads a multi-state, nearly $1 billion poultry operation based in Laurel, said in an October 2014 interview.

Sanderson and other state business leaders can make the difference in the outcome in 2016, said Dick Hall, central district commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Business led the way in 1987 and must do it again next year, added Hall, who as a legislator 28 years ago led an override of Gov. William Allain’s veto of the 18.4 cents a gallon motor fuels tax.

“Without the real energetic support of the business community, we don’t have a chance to pass anything,” he said. “It passed in ’87 as a direct result of the business community.”

Sanderson said at the outset of the task force’s work that the panel likely would propose increases in the motor fuels tax, car tags and drivers licenses. “I don’t know if there will be additional ones, but those are the primary sources,” he said at the time.

The focus will be on user fees, Sanderson said. “The people who use the highways are going be the ones who pay for the upkeep of the roads.”

Fillingane, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he is anxiously awaiting the report from Sanderson’s task force and acknowledged the extensive time and resources that went into the task force’s work.

“We’re very much interested,” he said, but emphasized he does not want to “prejudge” the options the task force will present.

“There’s not any question we need the upgrades,” Fillingane said in an interview in mid-November. “The question is how we get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’.”

Sen. Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said he is encouraged that it will be the business community presenting the plan. “Legislators will probably be receptive to doing something,” he said. “The question is, ‘What?’”

Whatever they do, the first year after an election is the year to it, Simmons said. “This is the best time to do it – the beginning of the term.”

Simmons’ fellow Democrat Bobby Moak does not agree. “I think it is going to be difficult” to get a comprehensive package passed, said Rep. Moak, the House Democratic leader who will miss his first legislative session in 33 years, having lost his Bogue Chitto seat to Republican Vince Mangold.

“A lot of these folks who are going to show up in the Legislature for the most part have pledged no increase in taxes.”

Those “folks” are Republicans who represent the “Party of No” and who see any fee as a tax, Moak said. And they now have more control than ever, he added.

Moak said if the opposition appears strong going in, he does not expect the business leaders backing the transportation package can enlist much Democratic support. “The Democrats will sit on their hands” to avoid getting tagged as tax-and-spenders, Moak said, though he noted that could change if House and Senate leaders promised them a substantial amount of transportation dollars for their districts.

Nor does Moak think Democrats will allow Republicans to strip money from mental health, education and other areas to fund road and bridge upkeep. “I don’t think we’ll see the Democrats falling for that,” he said.

Legislators are going to either have to raise taxes to pay for the transportation backlog or dip into a rainy day fund that is approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars, Moak said.

But, he added, there is always next year. “I think that this year — the first year of a new term – to break the promise of no additional fees or taxes is going to be a very heavy burden to carry.”

On the other hand, if a promise must be breached, the “second year seems to be historically a good year” to do it, he said. “Six months is a lifetime in politics. It’s enough time to get around the voting cycle.”

Political scientist Dr. Jon Winburn sees it that way as well. “Since Mississippi uses 4-year terms, I would think years two and three are most likely to see new initiatives pass as legislators probably think the public is paying less attention to them,” said Winburn, a University of Mississippi political science professor.

But 2016?

Winburn said he would be surprised to see anything happen.  “Generally speaking, legislators are more likely to stand by their campaign pledges (like no new taxes) immediately after an election and reassert those again once they are back on the campaign trail,” he said in an email.

“Despite the fact that transportation needs are very important in the state and the business community has traditionally carried a lot of clout, I’m not sure any of that matters to many of the new Tea Party types being elected.  Many of these individuals fundamentally don’t believe in raising revenue (taxes) for any reason,” he added.

“ Now, this may change as they learn more about the way governing actually works, but I’m not sure this new breed of conservatives will be quick to budge from their ‘no taxes’ pledges.”

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