Staff and Wire
JACKSON — Reacting to the Mississippi state chamber of commerce’s call for new fees and taxes to fund an annual $375 million to fix up decaying roads and bridges over a 10-year period, Gov. Phil Bryant insisted Friday that such tax increases must be offset by “by corresponding tax cuts.”
Bryant did not indicate support for the proposals, though he said in a written statement he will work with the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s Chamber, and the business leaders who served on a task force that identified the transportation needs and presented options for paying for them.
“I look forward to working with the MEC, the Legislature and other stakeholders as we continue the process of upgrading and modernizing our roads and bridges. As I’ve said before, any tax increase must be offset by corresponding tax cuts,” Bryant said.
The MEC and members of the task force pledged to throw its political support behind a campaign to boost funding.
In a report, the MEC calls for the state Department of Transportation to receive another $300 million a year, while cities and counties would split $75 million. The report admits the money isn’t enough to meet all the state’s needs — transportation officials routinely cite an estimate of $400 million a year more for state roads and bridges alone. But the report says the money would be enough to take care of the most critical needs.
“While this increase would not fully fund all of the needs outlined in the recently released Mississippi Department of Transportation long-range plan, it would allow the process to be accelerated in the short-term and as revenue is indexed to an inflationary measure, additional resources would come available to help meet the goals of the MDOT plan,” the report said.
There would be enough money, the authors say, to replace 562 deficient state bridges, including every state bridge with timber underpinnings and 138 where deterioration means the department has posted a weight limit lower than the design capacity.
Overall accumulated needs top $6 billion, including local bridge replacement and repairing county and city roads in very poor condition.
The report doesn’t call for one particular funding method, but suggests that lawmakers consider higher fuel taxes, license plate fees, rental car taxes or general sales taxes.
The council pledges that it’s going to create a lobbying campaign that it calls Excelerate Mississippi to push for action. But it’s unclear how Mississippi’s largely Republican leadership will receive the call for higher taxes and more spending. Though not precisely ruling them out, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have both been cool to tax increases.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to pass a fuel tax in Mississippi,” Bryant said last fall as he was running for re-election.
The report said increasing funding by $375 million would cost the average driver 37 cents a day, an amount equal to $135. But the council said its projections show that benefits from reduced drive time and wear-and-tear would produce a larger economic benefit, equal to $1.45 per driver per day, or about $530 a year.
Business support was key to the 1987 highway program that crisscrossed Mississippi with four-lane highways. Lawmakers raised the gasoline tax to 18.4 cents per gallon then, a level it’s been stuck at since despite steady erosion to inflation. But business opposition helped torpedo a 2013 proposal to raise a mix of taxes to increase revenue by $600 million or more.
“As I drive across our state, today, I see firsthand that we are on the verge of losing our competitive edge,” said Joe F. Sanderson, Chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms and leader of the MEC committee that produced the study. “The massive investment that was made in our state’s transportation system as a result of the 1987 AHEAD program will be lost.”