Head of special transportation panel insists ‘not going to accept failure’

by Ted Carter

Published: January 17,2014

Tags: Business, Mississippi, roads, transportation, upgrades

roadtripMedia reports speculate the Senate Highways and Transportation Special Committee recommendations for funding road and bridge maintenance will wind up in the circular file almost as soon as the chair of the Senate Highway Appropriations Committee presents them.

The chairman, Cleveland Democratic Sen. Willie Simmons, has read the news reports that the six months of effort by his task force of lawmakers and business leaders with a stake in the transportation issue has already fizzled out. He’s not saying the reports are incorrect, but he insists the special committee is quite serious about getting something done on road and bridge maintenance.

“I can say there is not a lot of support in the Capitol for raising taxes,” he said in an interview at the start of the 2014 legislative session. But the committee is “not going to accept failure at this point and say nothing is going to be done.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the traffic cop for Senate legislation, has said he is willing to consider putting transportation maintenance in a bond bill but won’t accept consideration of new fees or taxes, including changing the 18.5 cents a gallon gas tax that has been in place since 1987.

The bond bill, which would also have to cover other pressing state needs, must come in at $200 million or below to get Reeves’ support.

Simmons said it will be at least a couple of more weeks before the transportation panel presents its report. One key conclusion, however, is that no single tax or fee will be sufficient for meeting the state’s estimated $500 million backlog in current road and bridge upkeep needs. Nor would a single source be enough to cover future needs beyond the current deficit, Simmons said.

The panel looked closely at making the tax a percentage of the per gallon price instead of a flat fee. While Simmons has said he supports taxing fuel on a percentage basis, he is willing to go only so far in that direction.

Each cent increment of the gas tax raises about $20 million annually, Simmons noted. By adding a full 10 cents onto the motor fuels tax, sellers of gasoline in the state would lose business to neighboring states with lower taxes, he said. With fewer gallons sold, the state would generate fewer dollars for the highway maintenance, he noted.

And an extra 10 cents wouldn’t stretch far enough to pay for the current maintenance deficit, according to Simmons.

A tax on Internet sales has also been considered, but Simmons said he worries that the pot of money the tax could generate would create a free-for-all as interest groups vied for a share.

The heads of two key stakeholder groups — farmers and poultry processors — say they would look favorably at following the example of Arkansas solution for catching up with unmet road and bridge maintenance. The neighboring state’s voters in November approved a decade-long half-cent sales tax with exemptions for groceries and drugs.

Arkansas’ half-cent sales tax is appealing because “it kind of gets everybody,” Randy Knight, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said in an interview late last year.

The Mississippi Economic Council, which serves as the state’s Chamber of Commerce, wants another year of study before the Legislature acts. The T1 Coalition, made up of businesses, industry groups, associations, economic development interest, cities, counties and state agencies, accompanied the Economic Council on its annual road show late last year to gather ideas and suggestions for maintaining and upgrading the state transportation system.

TI Chairman Charlie Williams, a Butler Snow attorney and former legislator and chief of staff for Gov. Haley Barbour, said ideas and opinions gathered during the MEC town hall tour will go toward developing both short and long-term funding proposals for the Legislature to consider at some point in the future.

Another year of delay, however, is an outcome Simmons does not want to see. “When you look at 3,000 bridges in this state that are in danger of falling down, I can’t go to sleep at night saying we are not going to advocate to ensure that public safety needs aren’t put in place.”

Of the 3,000 or so bridges deemed structurally deficient, 1,054 are maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation and 2,016 by cities and counties.

In a statement that Simmons said he will release before issuing the report, the veteran legislator said he can only hope the Senate leadership recognizes “that our transportation system is facing a crisis. I hope we do not kick the can down the road. Today we must act and act expeditiously.”

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