By JACK WEATHERLY
Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn on Thursday told the Mississippi Economic Council that they are open for finding a way to fund a major overhaul of the state’s roads and bridges.
But, as they have said numerous times before, neither Bryant nor Gunn favored raising it through increased taxation.
Gunn said that as of now there simply isn’t support in the House for such a tax increase.
Bryant, Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, also a Republican, have emphasized tax cuts and economic expansion as the best way to raise the necessary revenue for infrastructure and essential services such as education.
The 2016 package passed by lawmakers and signed by Bryant will phase out Mississippi’s $260-million-a-year corporate franchise tax and cut $145 million in income taxes, raising the threshold for
paying state income taxes to $10,000. Those reductions will begin in 2018. The package will also lower self-employment taxes, cutting $10.2 million over three years beginning this year.
Dr. Darrin Webb, the state economist, has predicted that Mississippi’s 2016 gross state product will grow for the second consecutive year, a modest 1.5 percent – still double the 0.7 percent growth in 2015.
Bryant, the opening speaker for annual MEC Capital Day event that coincides with the start of the legislative session, suggested at the downtown Marriott Hotel that there may be a way to take advantage of President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed “trillion dollar” infrastructure plan.
Bryant said that he has talked with Trump and wants to invite his Secretary of Transportation nominee, Elaine Chao, to Mississippi to talk possibilities.
Yet the Republican-controlled Congress is dubious about the suggested plan. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have voiced skepticism on how the plan would be funded.
Gunn told an overflow crowd at the Capitol that he is working assiduously to find a way to fund upgrades of roads and bridges.
“I’m personally engaged in this,” Gunn said.
He said he has met with the Mississippi Trucking Association, the Mississippi Road Builders Association and the Mississippi Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association in an attempt to understand how the condition of roads and bridges affects them and what are possible solutions.
Trucking Association President Hal Miller said in an interview after Capital Day that it has supported a fuel tax increase for the past two sessions and will do so again this year.
He complimented Gunn, saying that “he’s digging in. He’s truly trying to get a grasp of the situation.
Miller said he expects the MEC to announce its proposal for infrastructure needs in a matter of days. He is a member of the MEC task force on the matter.
The MEC last year pushed for a plan to provide $375 million a year from an increase of the fuel tax and a new user tax for maintenance.
The state passed a landmark program for building four-lane highways in 1987.
But the legislation did not provide for a revenue stream for maintenance.
The state’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel has remained at 18 cents per gallon since 1987.
And while transportation fuel consumption has increased by 30 percent in the past three decades, construction costs have increased by 400 percent, House Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby (R-Pascagoula) said Thursday.
If nothing is done, the state will find itself in a hole it cannot get out of, Busby said.
Sen. Willie Simmons, chairman the upper chamber’s Highways and Transportation Committee, said 22 percent of the state’s 16,000 bridges are deficient.
He said the safety of those using the substandard spans is threatened, including school buses, commercial trucks and buses carrying tourists.
His 13th District is in the Delta, which relies heavily on tourism along the Blues Trail and including the Mississippi Grammy Museum in Cleveland.