Mississippi legislators are unlikely to agree this session on a comprehensive, long-term plan to pay for highways and bridges.
House Speaker Philip Gunn said a House proposal to earmark taxes collected on items sold over the internet for transportation work could generate $75 million to $125 million a year. Gunn said he has also asked the Mississippi Department of Transportation to find ways to cut existing expenses by about $50 million a year.
The Republican from Clinton said he wants an independent group to evaluate needs for construction and repair.
“Where I’m at, where I think most of my chamber is at, is trying to satisfy ourselves as to what the need is,” Gunn told reporters Tuesday. “I think that question has been skipped over.”
In a separate interview Wednesday, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Mississippi needs to improve infrastructure and he would have no problem with getting an independent analysis.
“We clearly need to spend more money on roads and bridges,” Reeves said. “We need to spend what we’re currently spending more efficiently.”
He said the Department of Transportation should reduce staff travel expenses and put higher priority on spending money on immediate needs, such as crumbling bridges, rather than on longer-term projects, such as purchasing rights of way for highways that could be built years from now.
Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath said the department collects data about every state highway and bridge on a regular basis and that information is available to lawmakers.
“The conditions of the roads — they’re not arbitrary. They’re very well-defined by national standards,” McGrath said. “A deficient bridge is a deficient bridge.”
McGrath said she was unaware that Gunn wants an independent group to evaluate transportation needs.
“I’m not really sure what he’s hoping to get out of a study, but you know we’re governed by the laws that the legislative body passes,” McGrath said. “So whatever they deem important, whatever they deem necessary, we are very supportive.”
Mississippi built more than 1,700 miles of four-lane highways after legislators enacted a 1987 program that included a gasoline tax increase. The gas tax revenues have not kept pace with the rising cost of construction materials and labor to keep the highways in good shape.
Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce, has pushed for an additional $375 million a year for highways and bridges, saying most money should come from higher fuel taxes or taxes on vehicle licenses. That proposal in part came from MEC-commissioned studies by the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University and private consultants.
MEC President Blake Wilson said in a prepared statement Wednesday that Gunn’s proposal for more analysis could lead to a long-term plan that is “operationally and fiscally sound.” Wilson said the internet sales tax proposal offers a partial solution for funding. He compared the two approaches to parallel roads leading to the same destination — a long-term fix for transportation.
“MEC also recognizes that as the legislative process continues, there may be other lanes of opportunity added toward the goal of fixing Mississippi’s crumbling road and bridge infrastructure,” Wilson said.