By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

JACKSON – A recent Millsaps poll rejecting the idea of increasing the gasoline tax might not mean Mississippians oppose a tax increase for road and bridge needs, one of the poll’s sponsors and a leading advocate for spending more on transportation both agree.

As a matter of fact, the Mississippi Economic Council cites four polls conducted between December 2015 and May 2017 showing majority support for “a plan that increased some taxes and fees to fund only fixing and improving our highways and bridges.” The last MEC poll, conducted by Mason Dixon, finds Mississippians would support increasing some fees and taxes by an overwhelming 65 percent to 29 percent margin.

Many view an increase in the 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax, which is one of the lowest in the nation, as the most logical way to provide additional funds for transportation needs.

But last week Millsaps College, in conjunction with Mississippi-based Chism Strategies, released a poll on a number of state issues, including the gasoline tax. It showed respondents rejecting the gasoline tax increase by a whopping 72 percent to 21 percent margin.

Still, Nathan Shrader, an assistant professor of political science at Millsaps, said he does not believe there is a conflict between the polls.

The key, Shrader said, is that his poll asked Mississippi voters whether they would support increasing the gasoline tax to provide additional funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education.

“I think voters say I am putting gas in my car and driving on roads and bridges so it makes sense to use the gas tax for infrastructure,” the Millsaps political scientist said. “I think they would be more inclined to support an increase if that is how it is used.”

He added “voters probably think more logically” on such issues than many people realize.

The Millsaps poll found that respondents believe “fixing roads and bridges” should be the top priority of the state’s elected officials.

Scott Waller, the interim chief executive officer of the MEC, said the Millsaps poll could be viewed as voters see roads and bridges as a priority and believe the motor fuel tax – a user tax on those who use the roads and bridges – should be solely directed toward transportation needs.

“It is a user tax. What I think they are saying (in the Millsaps poll) is the gasoline tax should not be used for education,” Waller said.

Coincidentally, the Millsaps poll found that 55 percent of respondents believe education funding in Mississippi is too low. Pluralities support increasing the personal income tax for high wage earners and corporate income taxes to provide more funding for education. By a wide margin, a majority also supports enacting a state lottery to provide additional money to education.

The MEC has been one of the leading advocates in recent years for spending more on what most people agree is a deteriorating state and local transportation system. Many view increasing the gasoline tax, which already is directed toward transportation funding, as the most logical way to address the bridge and road needs.

This summer at the Neshoba County Fair, Republican Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said the tax on motor fuel “remains the fairest way to fund roads and bridges. User pays. Those using the highways pay for the highways. That includes those using from other states and passing through to somewhere else.”

The problem is that despite the comments from Hall and despite what public opinion polls might reflect, the MEC and others have not been able to convince the Legislature to buy into the idea of a tax increase for transportation. Both presiding officers, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate and Speaker Philip Gunn in the House, while conceding more funds are needed for transportation, have refused to support a tax increase or specifically a gasoline tax increase.

Waller said it might be time to look at options other than increasing the gasoline tax to deal with transportation needs – at least in the short run.

“It is an economic issue. It is a safety issue,” Waller said of transportation needs. “…We haven’t been able to come up with a plan to make everybody happy, but we will keep trying.”