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Wyatt Emmerich: Decrepit roads illustrate weakness with democracy

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

When the state legislature voted 30 years ago to vastly improve Mississippi's highways, they passed an 18 cent gas tax. It was the most logical way to fund the program. 

 

As a result, Mississippi has had some of the best roads in the nation, a boon for economic development and public safety and convenience. 

 

But the legislature made one fatal flaw: They didn't index the tax for inflation. After 30 years, inflation has cut the real amount of the original gas tax in half. 

 

At 18.4 cents per gallon, Mississippi has the lowest gas tax of any of our neighboring states and the 46th lowest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. Pennsylvania, with the nation's highest gas tax, levies 58 cents per gallon. 

 

As our roads deteriorate, the crisis is coming to a head. Earlier this year, the federal government shut down 100 bridges. Now the feds are threatening to cut off money to Mississippi if something is not done. 

 

Gov. Phil Bryant has proposed a lottery. That's a terrible idea. Lotteries hurt low income households that can least afford it. It's state-supported gambling, a moral abomination. 

 

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves proposed a band-aid approach that would not even come close to the $350 million needed. His plan would take authority away from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and give power to the governor, a position Reeves hopes to fill. 

 

Now Speaker of the House Philip Gunn has made a proposal to raise the gas tax two cents, not nearly enough, and then reallocate existing use tax money to the MDOT. He simultaneously plans to eliminate the lowest bracket of the state income tax so he can claim he did not raise overall taxes. 

 

All three major state leaders are bending over backwards not to raise taxes, but there is simply no way to properly maintain our roads without doing so. 

 

The federal government has no room to point fingers. The federal gas tax hasn't been adjusted for inflation in 23 years. The federal interstate system is also crumbling as a result. 

 

The real problem here is a fundamental flaw in democracy. Voters don't want to raise taxes and will boot out politicians who do. Politicians don't want to get booted out, so they kick the can down the road. 

 

But roads are apolitical. They will deteriorate regardless of which way the political winds may blow. It's just a matter of time. 

 

The nature of road maintenance compounds this problem. Roads can last for many years without maintenance, making it easy for politicians to kick the can down the road. But sooner or later, the lack of maintenance becomes obvious. 

 

By that time, it's too late. An expensive proposition becomes an enormous deferred liability. A road, if maintained properly, can last for 30 years and be rebuilt for a reasonable cost. But rebuilding a road that hasn't been maintained can cost three or more times more money - a veritable disaster. And that's where we are. 

 

Voters, who generally detest taxes, think the roads are just fine until they collapse, causing motorists to pay huge amounts to repair tires, rims, shocks, struts and, ultimately, a total front end rebuilt costing thousands. At that point, the proverbial material has hit the fan. 

 

Republicans often like to extol the free market and compare its benefits to the governmental tax-and-spend model. But in the free market, this sad situation would never occur. 

 

Companies that fail to maintain their assets fail. Customers turn away in droves. Just imagine a hotel that allowed its infrastructure to crumble. Customers would flock to the new nice hotel. 

 

Airlines must maintain their airplanes, otherwise accidents occur and nobody would buy their tickets. 

 

My newspaper company over the years has been forced to spend millions to maintain our printing equipment. Nobody will read an ugly, inky paper. It's not money I wanted to spend. I had to do it. The free market made me. 

 

Any homeowner knows this. You can fail to maintain your roof, but if you do your home value will decline and you could never sell your house. You would also risk further structural damage caused by moisture. So you suck it up and maintain your roof. 

 

These free market forces unfortunately do not work with road maintenance. Politicians come and go and can leave the problem for the next office holder. Motorists have few options. They can take another route, but that adds time and time is money. And sooner or later all the roads on all the routes will go bad. 

 

Now we have a crisis. For the state of Mississippi, bridge closures and angry voters are a reality. Now the loss of federal funds adds fuel to the fire. 

 

My job is to explain what's going on in the hope of turning the tide of public opinion which will eventually manifest itself at the ballot box. Change will happen, but at a rate that will make the price tag billions more than would have been necessary if we had state leaders instead of state politicians. 

 

Mississippi's one-party domination doesn't help matters. Politicians follow the standard play book, which means never raise taxes under any circumstance. You can't run a state that way. 

 

Anti-tax political groups don't help matters. There are some very powerful political action committees and political non-profit organizations that will hurt politicians who raise taxes. No politician wants to get on the wrong side of those people. 

 

I have always disliked ideology because it is often taken to extreme. You simply cannot properly run the government if you take the position that taxes can never be raised under any circumstances. It just won't work. 

 

No doubt government is wasteful and spends too much. It has always been so. That is the nature of the beast. That's why I prefer free market solutions. Perhaps we are headed to a system of toll roads run by for-profit businesses. Now that would truly be an enormous expense. 

 

Throughout this debate, nobody has disputed the maintenance needs specified by MDOT. It is what it is. Road maintenance costs are fairly straightforward to compute. 

 

The simplest solution is to index the gas tax and get it to a point so we can properly maintain our roads to minimize the long-range cost. But that would require our state leaders to get off the no-tax-increase-under-any-circumstance ideological rocking horse. I see no sign of that happening. 

 

As Winston Churchill once said: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. We are seeing the truth of those words.

 

 

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