April 25, 2018 10:26:36 AM
For the past three years, the Mississippi Legislature has been warned about the deteriorating conditions of our state's roads and bridges. For the past three years, nothing has been done.
What was once viewed as a problem is now considered a crisis. Two weeks ago, the federal government said if the state did not close more than 100 bridges federal inspectors had found to be unsafe, the state would risk losing federal highway funds. That got folks attention in Jackson. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared as state of emergency and required the Mississippi Department of Transportation to act immediately in closing those unsafe bridges. This week, the State Bond Commission authorized $25 million in bonds to fund emergency repairs, which is little more than applying a band-aid to a gaping wound. According the Mississippi Economic Councils study in 2014, it will require $3.75 billion to return the state's roads and bridges to good condition.
A Senate bill to spend $1.1 billion on addressing the problem never reached a vote in the House and probably, for good reason: The funding was dubious - relying on revenue surpluses at a time when the state's annual revenue has fallen below projections in each of the last three years and local "matching funds," which essentially raise taxes on the local level. That many of the worst bridges are in poor counties seriously challenges how viable raising local taxes would be.
Last week, House Speaker Phillip Gunn called for a "tax swap," which would lower income taxes by raising the state's fuel tax. That's problematic, too. Gasoline prices have steadily increased since last summer and trading one tax for another is like re-arranging the furniture after the roof has fallen in. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves flatly rejected that plan as the power struggle between the two autocrats running the House and Senate continue.
All eyes now turn to Bryant, waiting to see if the governor will call a special session for a road/bridge plan.
Bryant has not tipped his hands and for good reason: It's a tough call.
The fact is the legislature is not oblivious to this problem. It simply lacks to will to do anything about it.
A real plan to fix our roads and bridges requires real money. And that money can only come from some sort of tax increase. There is no other solution.
Every plan to raise that money - from a state lottery to a increase in the fuel tax to a law requiring sale tax collections on internet purchases - has met stubborn resistance. You can bet the Governor has no interest in a prolonged special session where legislators argue bitterly over how to raise the funds necessary to adopt a workable road/bridge plan.
After all, it's one thing to have a special session. It's quite another to have a special session that achieves nothing.
There is, at this point, no reason to believe our legislators could agree during a special session on something it has not been able to agree on during the past three regular sessions.
Oh, and if you think a solution will be forthcoming in next year's session, forget about it. 2019 is an election year and no legislator with an eye toward staying in office is going to have anything to do with raising taxes, no matter how needed those taxes might be.
Given that immutable fact of Mississippi politics, addressing our roads/bridges will likely require 2020 vision.
Drive at your own peril.