March 18, 2017 9:56:24 PM
Winston Churchill, the legendary British prime minister, made this observation during World War II: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else."
The Mississippi Legislature, when it comes to finding money for highway maintenance, seems determined to prove that Churchill's insight was wonderfully accurate.
Last week, the House approved a bill to borrow $50 million to fix or replace bridges. The bill also set aside money from voluntary internet sales tax collections for road and bridge work. Furthermore, highways would get more money if state tax revenue increases in future years.
The bill's chance of becoming law is far from guaranteed. The Senate gets a second look at it, and a conference committee most likely will, too. Gov. Phil Bryant also would have to sign it.
The effort is appreciated. The Mississippi Economic Council, which for two years has pushed for more money for highway maintenance, praised the House amendment.
But the House only provided a small percentage of the $350 million per year that the MEC says the state needs to spend to keep its highway system in good shape. Borrowing money is a onetime patch that only adds to the state's debt. It is the absolute wrong way to approach the ongoing, perpetual, never-ending challenge of bridge and highway maintenance.
The obvious solution -- the right thing, as Churchill might put it -- is a sizable increase in the state gasoline tax. Republicans who are in charge of the Legislature haven't gotten there yet. They're still trying everything else. They're borrowing money, allocating indeterminate internet sales tax payments and hoping that Mississippi's economy will improve quickly.
Currently, the state adds 18.4 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel, a rate that hasn't changed in 30 years. If it were just adjusted for inflation, it would more than double.
Although such an increase might initially be unwelcome to Mississippi drivers and businesses that use fleets of vehicles, they would benefit from the results. It would provide a larger stream of cash, year in and year out, to allow the state to keep its roads and bridges in better shape, thus reducing the wear and tear on everyone's cars and trucks.
A higher fuel tax also would recognize that highway construction and maintenance costs have greatly increased since 1987, the last time the state raised the tax.
With fuel prices in a two-year slump, this is the perfect time for the Legislature to address its highway funding problem. As the House indicated with its action last week, lawmakers simply haven't come around to that idea.
The mindset is frustrating. The Legislature eagerly borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to attract out-of-state mega-businesses to Mississippi, giving them a huge competitive advantage in workforce hiring. But it is unwilling to recognize the importance of greater investment in a highway network that has the potential to help every single county in the state.
The public unfortunately must be patient. It's a matter of time, probably a few years, before "everything else" proves unsustainable and a serious fuel tax debate will begin.