The presiding officers in the Legislature – Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate and House Speaker Philip Gunn – nor Gov. Phil Bryant completely dismissed the proposal of Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, to ask the voters to decide whether to increase taxes and fees for transportation.
During a speech Monday to the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/capitol press corps, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, revealed that Kirby would introduce a bill during the 2018 session to put the issue to the voters.
On Tuesday, Clay Chandler, a spokesman for the governor, said, “Gov. Bryant has always appreciated the people’s right to vote on such important issues. The language of the proposed initiative would be important, but he is not offended by Sen. Kirby’s proposal.”
And Reeves said, “I have not seen the details of Sen. Kirby’s proposal, but I appreciate his work, and that of many other senators, to find solutions to our infrastructure challenges.”
Reeves added “the first step” is for the Department of Transportation “to more efficiently manage the more than $7 billion the Legislature has spent on roads and bridges over the past six years. If voters were to vote to increase funding, there should be detailed plans on how to spend the money on projects that are necessary to grow our economy.”
Efforts, led in part by the influential Mississippi Economic Council, have been under way for several years to provide additional money for what most agree is a deteriorating state and local transportation system.
During the 2017 session, House members blocked passage of the budget for the Department of Transportation until a special session to try to force the Senate to consider some of their proposals to provide additional funds for road and bridge needs. Those proposals, such as directing a certain percentage of internet sales tax collections to transportation and a local sales tax option, did not go far in the Senate.
Both Reeves and Gunn have expressed opposition to increasing the state’s 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax, which is the current primary source of state funding for transportation. Kirby’s proposal would include an increase in the gasoline tax and other fee increases, though, they could be altered by the full Legislature.
“As with most topics or potential legislation, we need to see all the details of the plan or bill first,” Gunn said.
Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Lous, the House Democratic leader, said “It is a legislative obligation to fund the operations of government. The Legislature just needs to suck it up and do what needs to be done. It is a leadership issue. If the leadership was willing to work across the aisle, it could be done.”
By the same token, Baria said many Democrats would be opposed to raising the gasoline tax.
“How can you ask people to pay more for gas in their truck to drive to work at a time when the Legislature has given more than $800 million in tax cuts to some of the largest corporations?” he asked.
The Republican leadership has passed about 50 tax cuts in recent years that will reduce the state general fund by more than $700 million when fully enacted. The majority, though not all of those tax cuts, are directed at business. The legislative leaders say the tax cuts will help grow the state’s economy.
Many Democrats have advocated repealing some of those tax cuts to pay for transportation needs.
While not commenting specifically on the proposed state referendum, Senate Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said, “I am excited about Sen. Kirby’s proposal from the point of view we have more members saying something needs to be done about roads and bridges.”
Statistics from the Department of Transportation cite the state as having 1,054 deficient bridges with a total cost of $2.5 billion to repair or replace and 5,000 miles of highway in need of “serious repair” costing $1 billion.