September 5, 2013 10:14:58 AM
JACKSON -- Business groups still aren't ready to raise Mississippi's taxes to repair and build highways and bridges.
In August, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, proposed a $700 million menu of taxes and asked other members of a study committee examining road needs to offer their own alternative revenue and spending plans. Highway officials say the state needs hundreds of millions of dollars a year to repair existing roads and bridges and to build new ones.
In responses discussed at a Wednesday meeting of the study panel, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, the Mississippi Trucking Association, gas station owners and farm groups all say they want further study of the efficiency of the Mississippi Department of Transportation as well as a look at how it picks projects before discussing more revenue.
Jay Moon, CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said he needs a better sense of how road and bridge builders would choose to use a limited amount of money, rather than just saying they will fix everything
"I don't think until we establish the methodology that established what the priorities are, we can establish what the revenue will be," Moon said after the meeting.
But he also said that the $700 million Simmons had first floated, or even the $600 million he discussed Wednesday, aren't realistic.
"I don't think we're going to get $500 million," Moon said. "I don't think we're going to get anything near that."
Simmons had hoped his panel would reach a broad agreement on how much more money the transportation system needs, how to raise it, and then tour the state to build public support. That's a modified version of what happened in 1987, when lawmakers overrode Gov. Bill Allain's veto to raise taxes to build four-lane highways.
Wednesday, Simmons said that when the panel met again in October, he hoped it could work to build consensus on what the state actually needs, before trying again to discuss revenue.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, a legislative watchdog group, is studying MDOT efficiency and says it will have a report ready in time for the January start of the regular legislative session.
But PEER Director Max Arinder said that even if his body finds tens of millions in waste, it won't be enough to pay for highway needs.
"We are facing a crisis," Arinder said. "Unless somebody can show us data that points in a different direction, that's a reality. And we've looked."
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a Republican who was one of the first to begin calling for more money, urged the committee not to use study as a cover for inaction.
"The last thing you need to do is be convinced there is a problem and kick this can down the road," Hall told the panel.