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Study on taxes, spending may aid effort of infrastructure program

By BOBBY HARRISON

Various groups working on a comprehensive plan to improve the state’s roads and bridges are hoping Speaker Philip Gunn’s proposal to form “working groups” to study and make suggestions on Mississippi’s taxing and spending practices revitalizes their effort.

“We’re not going to give up on this. We are still working,” said Scott Waller, executive vice president of the Mississippi Economic Council, which has proposed the Excelerate Mississippi Program to spend $375 million per year to address what the group calls dire infrastructure needs across the state.

“We are having conversations with legislative leaders and others.”

Gunn was joined by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant last week in announcing the plan to form legislative working groups to look at various aspects of the state budget and Mississippi’s tax structure. Most view it as an opportunity to jump start the Excelerate Mississippi Program.

Gunn acknowledged “we’re looking for a stream of revenue” to pay for the road and bridge needs.

He said such a plan could be “folded into a comprehensive plan” developed by the working groups.

Mississippi Poultry Association President Mark Leggett, who attended the news conference where the working groups were announced, said, “We have worked with others to upgrade our transportation system to keep our roads safe, and we appreciate the Legislature continuing to work on methods to finance those improvements that will keep goods and employees moving to their destination.”

Efforts to raise additional revenue for infrastructure have had the strong backing of many groups, including the MEC and the Poultry Association. But the Republican majority in the Legislature, adverse to tax increases, stalled the infrastructure improvement plan during the 2016 session.

Late in the session, House Transportation Chairman Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, and Ways and Means Vice Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, developed what was described as a “broad tax reform bill” that reportedly made numerous changes to the state’s tax laws while also raising additional money for transportation, presumably through an increase in the tax on gasoline and motor fuel.

Sensing a lack of support for the proposal, however, Busby never introduced it to the House. Thus, the specifics are not known.

In general terms, though, that proposal helped spur Gunn’s call for the formation of the working groups.

“We have to come up with a specific plan and take it across the state and let people buy into it to help representatives and senators be able to make the tough vote when they get to Jackson,” Busby said.

Busby admitted with the year half over, it will be difficult to achieve that goal by the start of the 2017 session in January.

Gunn has indicated it might take the working groups two years to formulate some of their goals and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Various studies, including by MEC and by a Senate panel chaired by Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons, have concluded additional revenue is needed to pay for the repair of more than 1,000 deficient bridges across the state and more than 20,000 miles of highway in “very poor condition.”

The longer the repairs are put off, the studies concluded, the more acute the infrastructure needs become.

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The MEC study and others have concluded the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuel, enacted in 1987, no longer produces enough revenue to pay for the growing and costlier infrastructure needs.

Making the repairs “has economic benefits, but more importantly, it has safety benefits,” Waller said.

For years, Department of Transportation officials have said the 18.4-cent tax on a gallon of motor fuel has remained fairly consistent, while the cost of highway construction has gone up more than 300 percent.

Some legislators have expressed reluctance to consider tax increases at least until they are assured the Department of Transportation is as efficient as possible. Others say such studies already have indicated the agency is efficient.

The working group also will be looking at that issue.

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