By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

A plurality of Mississippians believe improving the state’s transportation system should be the Legislature’s top priority, but an overwhelming number oppose increasing the tax on gasoline – viewed by many as the most logical way to pay for additional road and bridge needs.

Those results were revealed in a poll released Wednesday by Millsaps College in Jackson and by Mississippi-based Chism Strategies. The scientific poll, conducted Sept. 14-18, has a margin of error of 4.4 percent and was weighted to reflect the turnout of the 2015 statewide elections.

The poll found that 27 percent of respondents believe “fixing roads and bridges” should be the top priority of the state’s elected officials. The issue of reducing the size of state government was a distant second at 15.9 percent while the issues of improving access to health care, more funding for public schools and providing more financial incentives to companies that create jobs followed closely – all at 14 percent or just below.

The issue of “protecting traditional family values,” a priority for legislators in recent years, was viewed as a priority for just 5.6 percent, according to the poll.

While many in the survey believe transportation should be the top priority, by an overwhelming 72-21 margin Mississippians oppose increasing the tax on gasoline. The state’s current 18.4-cent per gallon motor fuel tax – one of the lowest in the nation – is the primary source of revenue for the state’s transportation needs.

In recent years, the Legislature also had identified road and bridge repairs as a major concern, but has struggled to reach a consensus on how to fund the transportation needs.

By slim margins, Mississippians, based on the survey, support an increase in the income tax (44 percent to 41 percent specifically for education spending) and an increase in the corporate tax (46 percent to 41 percent.) The Legislature recently has passed multiple major tax cuts for corporations and one significant cut in the personal income tax.

“The findings of the state of the state survey may help inform policymakers in the weeks and months ahead in their efforts to tackle critical issues impacting our state and our citizens,” Dr. Nathan R. Shrader, assistant professor of political science at Millsaps, said in a news release. “Among the main lessons learned from this survey are that Mississippians are concerned about the state of public education and that nearly 60 percent believe that funding is currently too low.

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, voters do not reflexively reject options for raising revenue to address the problem.”

The survey also found that by an overwhelming 73 percent to 23 percent margin Mississippians support enacting a lottery with the revenue going to education. Fifty-four percent of respondents favor allowing parents to send children to charter schools.

Mississippians also were queried about three key statewide politicians, Gov. Phil Bryant, Attorney General Jim Hood, the only statewide elected Democrat; and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, viewed as the front-runner for the open seat of governor in 2019.

The approval-disapproval rating for the three were:

  • Bryant – 54 percent to 32 percent
  • Reeves – 38-32
  • Hood – 52-25

Hood, a Chickasaw County native viewed as a possible candidate for governor, had his best net approval rating of 50 percent in his home area of Northeast Mississippi. Reeves’ best net approval rating of 23 percent was found on the Gulf Coast.

By a 45 percent to 27 percent margin the poll respondents disapprove of the Legislature and by a 40 percent to 37 percent margin the survey found Mississippians think the state is heading in the wrong direction.

A news release said “the Political Science Department and the Institute for Civic and Professional Engagement at Millsaps and Chism Strategies, looks to become a regular fixture of political discourse in the state.”