March 1, 2014 10:25:48 PM
JACKSON -- Proponents of increased Mississippi highway funding aren't just going to be waiting until 2015.
They'll probably be waiting until 2016.
A recent legislative watchdog report agreed with Department of Transportation leaders that the state needs hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to maintain existing highways. But with Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves explicitly ruling out an increase in fuel taxes, money-raising proposals have gotten nowhere in the 2014 Legislature.
The Mississippi Economic Council plans a study looking for solutions to the state's funding shortfall, but won't make recommendations until after the 2015 state elections. Scott Waller, the executive vice president of that state chamber of commerce, confirmed plans for the study Wednesday at an MEC meeting to discuss transportation issues.
Waller said MEC would examine roads, bridges, railroads, ports and intermodal facilities. He said Joe Sanderson Jr., chairman and CEO of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, a poultry processor, would lead the effort. Because poultry growers are scattered across rural areas, transportation is key to the industry.
"The study is to look for solutions," Waller said.
Transportation officials have estimated Mississippi needs about $400 million more per year to maintain its current system.
Waller said results would come out in late 2015, with MEC planning to submit them to the 2016 Legislature. Top state leaders may put the issue on the shelf until then, although some lawmakers are kicking back against a multiyear delay.
At that same Wednesday meeting, House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson III attacked what he called a "culture of doing nothing."
"I'm not asking anybody else in the Legislature. I'm not asking any more. You're going to have to tell them," Johnson told attendees. "Because every time I ask, they say, 'I don't know if that's what my people want.' Tell your legislators, tell your governor, tell your lieutenant governor that the time is now.'"
Both Johnson and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said that putting off action for years means decaying roads and bridges will only have more time to fall apart, making repairs more expensive.
"The delay of doing it just doesn't work and that seemed to be the attitude of a lot of individuals," Simmons said.
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert, a Republican, said the highway system needs immediate attention, but he supports the MEC study as a way to build support from the business community. That support was key to a 1987 tax increase that helped pay for the state's four-lane highway program
"We need their independent assessment," Tagert said.
In the meantime, funding supporters are looking for stopgaps to try to find a little more money. Mike Pepper, the executive director of the Mississippi Roadbuilders Association, noted that about $10 million per year in recent years was transferred from fuel taxes to the Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
"We're trying to find any type of bridge until then," Pepper said.
But Johnson notes that he had introduced such proposals this year and all have died.
For now, Bryant is staying out the issue.
"He is open to proposals that address the state's transportation needs," spokeswoman Nicole Webb said. "He is not in favor of increasing the gas tax."
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