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Barriers block access to a 1 1/4 mile section of Highway 178, just east of the Peppertown exit, as workers with the Mississippi Department of Transportation make renovations to Mantachie Creek bridge. Adam Armour/Courtesy The Itawamba County Times

Roads, bridges and a tight budget

Pick any year, and Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the union.

Mississippi ranked 50th in income for 2015, for example, with per capita compensation at $34,771.

Fortunately, taxation in the Magnolia State is low.

In fiscal 2012, it ranked 41st with taxation as a percentage of income (8.6), according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank founded in 1937. For basis of comparison, New York ranked first at 12.7 percent, the foundation’s Facts and Figures 2017 report stated.

Yet Mississippi has long needed a major overhaul of its roads and bridges. That takes capital. And it must be done in a balanced budget, as required by state law.

The legislative leadership is trying to see if that can be done without raising taxes.

The state obviously takes a fiscally conservative approach in meeting that stringent goal.

An ad hoc committee of legislative leaders met twice last year with Nicole Kaeding, an economist with the Tax Foundation, to discuss policy.

Geoff Pender, Clarion-Ledger political editor, wrote that House Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, president of the Senate, said Kaeding “validated tax decisions made by the GOP legislative leadership over the past five years – including more than 40 corporate tax cuts.”

“The state . . . has been in a financial crunch, with the governor and lawmakers having to slash budgets because of revenue shortfall,” Pender wrote, “but Republican leaders say the economy, not their tax cuts, [is] to blame.”

The state Bond Commission passed rules last year to ensure that state-backed general obligation bonds are for long-term projects that would not be found in a pork barrel.

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch, a member of the commission, put the per capita state debt at $1,700 last year. The foundation’s Facts and Figures report put Mississippi at $2,742 in fiscal 2012, 35th in state debt per capita for fiscal 2014.

Taking on debt is being pursued – but without adding to general taxation.

The proposed revenue source for the roads and bridges overhaul would be the sale of bonds, but interest to investors would be paid from a new sales tax on Internet transaction by firms with no physical presence in the state.

Reeves, a Republican, blocked a proposed mandate for that in the current session of the Legislature, arguing that it would run afoul of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Yet last week, Gunn, also a Republican, penned Senate Bill 2939, which would provide revenue from voluntary taxes paid by Internet-based retailers doing business in the state. The proposal would provide $50 million in bond revenue, divided equally between cities and counties.

A common figure cited for those infrastructural needs is $375 million a year, according to a study commissioned by the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce.

That legislation, which passed the House easily, will likely go to a conference committee to work out any differences. It was pending at publication time.

Increasing the tax on motor fuel – which has not been raised from its 18.8 cents per gallon since 1987, when the Legislature approved it and 1,700 miles of four-lane highway were built – has been suggested.

Mississippi ranks 46th. Pennsylvania’s is the highest at 58.2 cents as of Jan. 1, 2017.

Meantime, construction costs in Mississippi have risen several hundred percent in the past 30 years.

About Jack Weatherly

One comment

  1. With the no new taxes attitude by many in the legislature the future looks bright for ferries and mule breeders.

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