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Transportation chairman urges local leaders to exert more push on funding for roads and bridges

WILLIE SIMMONS

WILLIE SIMMONS

By TED CARTER

Local elected officials must do a better job persuading their legislators to back new road and bridge maintenance funding, Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons says in assessing prospects for getting a transportation bill through the 2017 Legislature.

But whether they are willing to do so is unclear, especially after disappointment in the proposed local share of new transportation funding diminished their enthusiasm for a transportation bill in this year’s session.

Simmons said he thinks the job for business leaders across Mississippi is to prod local leaders to become stronger and more vocal advocates for fixing the state’s highways and bridges. It will be particularly important for them to take on a larger voice in their discussions with House members reluctant to back new taxes and fees for transportation maintenance, Simmons said.

Local backing fell short in the last session, according to Simmons; assessment. “The Mississippi Association of Supervisors and Mississippi Municipal League did not pass resolutions that said we need help with our roads and bridges so we don’t look like the city of Jackson in the future,” Simmons said.

Simmons said the stakes will be much higher in 2017. “The closer we get to the next election, the tougher it is going to get to raise taxes,” he said in an interview last week.

The 2016 legislative session started with high hopes for action on proposals presented by a Mississippi Economic Council transportation task force which spent the previous year gathering data, identifying needs and analyzing funding sources. The plan languished at the Capitol, as did “dummy” legislation Simmons got through the Senate but went nowhere with House members.

The Cleveland Democrat said he left his legislation as a blank slate merely to get a conversation going with House members. On the House side, Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby said his belated appointment as chair in late January put House consideration of transportation funding at a disadvantage.  The late appointment gave him inadequate time to counter an argument raised by House members that the Mississippi Department of Transportation would not spend transportation money efficiently, he said.

The MEC panel’s plan proposed raising $375 million annually through higher motor fuel taxes and increased fees for auto tags and driver licenses. The idea was to generate $3 billion over 10 years for maintaining roads, bridges, airports and seaports. Seventy-five million dollars would have gone yearly to cities and counties for transportation infrastructure maintenance.

Looking ahead, the MEC “needs to work the local communities,” said Simmons, who today expresses frustration over a decision by business leaders two years to forgo action on a comprehensive transportation funding strategy proposed by a special task force of legislators and stakeholders he chaired. Instead of moving ahead and lending their backing to action in 2014, business leaders opted for the MEC transportation task force study that took all of 2015.

“We punted the ball,” Simmons said. “I didn’t feel we needed more study.”

Simmons conceded, however, that without support from business, prospects for new funding had only a slight chance, at best. “We needed them for that,” Simmons said, recalling that passage of the last transportation funding in 1987 occurred only because business leaders got behind it.

To overcome opposition to new taxes and fees for roads and bridges, “I think the MEC needs to work the local community. They need to work through the boards of supervisors and the municipal councils,” he said.

It also will be important to get participation in lobbying local governments from advocates such as the Delta Council and Joe Sanderson, the head of Sanderson Farms who chaired the MEC task force, Simmons said.

The idea is to get legislative membership “comfortable with raising taxes and fees,” he said.

“The business community has to make them understand they are going to possibly lose business or see business relocate out of state because they can’t move their goods.”

Added Simmons, “We can question the governor, the lieutenant governor and the Speaker, but you have to put it where the legislative process begins. And that is with members introducing legislation… that did not happen” this year.

Scott Waller, the MEC’s chief operating officer,  said the 2016 session “if nothing else” created a much greater recognition “that the need is out there.”

By March, polls done on behalf of the MEC showed 61 percent of Mississippians supported new taxes and fees for better roads and bridges.

Simmons is correct in concluding the “overall support of business and community leaders is the key for legislators to understand how important the issue is,” Waller said in an interview Tuesday.

“We’re just bringing this issue to the forefront and standing ready to bring this problem to a solution,” he added.

Kosciusko Mayor Jimmy Cockroft, president of the Mississippi Municipal League, said he thinks the League “will do everything” it can to help get transportation legislation passed in the next session.

Busby, the new House Transportation Committee chair, said he, too, will push to bring what he says is more realistic and sensible thinking to how Mississippi pays for upkeep of roads and bridges. “It is utter madness to believe an agency can operate in fiscal 2017 on the same income it had in 1989,” he said.

The Pascagoula Republican said a main task ahead is to impress on his fellow lawmakers that “they are   sent to Jackson to think. There is no carved-in-stone action or lack of action without engaging your brain…. We should commit to doing what we can and applying our intellect to what is best for taxpayers.”

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