Motorists might pay more at the gas pump

JACKSON — A top lawmaker says Mississippi needs to increase its gasoline tax to pay for highway and bridge maintenance, but he concedes there’s little chance of it happening this year.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson said 40 percent of Mississippi’s major roads and 28 percent of its highways are in poor or mediocre condition. He also says 25 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Mississippi’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel has been 18.8 cents per gallon since 1987.

Johnson, D-Natchez, filed a bill this year to increase the fuel tax. It died last week in the House Ways and Means Committee, and Johnson said there’s little chance it’ll be revived.

Still, he said he’s trying to keep conversation about the subject alive, in hopes that industry groups and average citizens will tell lawmakers that safe roads and bridges are important to the state’s economic future.

Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower more than 50 years ago, the U.S. was a world leader in developing an interstate highway system, Johnson said.

“Now, we’re at a point where we won’t do anything. I just don’t understand it,” he said Monday during a forum sponsored by Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps.

In 1987, the Mississippi Legislature approved an extensive program to build four-lane highways, with construction funded by a fuel tax increase. The tax increase was supposed to disappear once the program was completed, but lawmakers in 1994 voted to make the tax open-ended to pay for more highway construction.

Johnson said Mississippi needs to spend about $385 million more a year for road maintenance.

Republican Dick Hall, the central district state transportation commissioner, has been making speeches the past several months to push for a gasoline tax increase. He said the 1987 highway program provided a boost to the state’s economy.

“To sit here and let that deteriorate would be absolutely stupid,” Hall said after listening to Johnson’s speech.

The cost of highway construction has increased about 300 percent since the state fuel tax was raised 26 years ago, Hall said.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, told reporters last month that there’s little support in the Legislature this year for increasing gasoline taxes or other taxes.

Johnson’s proposal that died, House Bill 265, would’ve left the current fuel tax in place but created more revenue by adding an amount equal to 6 percent of the wholesale price of gasoline, starting in January 2014. The new tax would’ve been recalculated every six months.

Legislators can revive dead bills with the support of two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate. That rarely happens, however, and it’s unlikely to happen this year for a gasoline tax increase.

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