August 21, 2018 11:02:55 AM
Mississippi desperately needs a long range plan to deal with highways and other basic infrastructure. Instead, based on tweets and rumors, it's likely to get a needless special legislative session which will make things worse.
These issues, which involve billions of dollars, should be debated in public. Instead, groups of politicians are meeting in secret trying to decide what they will tell rank and file legislators to do.
Here's a question: Do you think these politicians are (a) trying to determine what will be best for the state in 20 or 30 years, or (b) trying to figure out how to get past the 2019 statewide elections?
Let's look at where we are: The state is broke. At the peak of the economic cycle, tax collections are barely keeping up with inflation. In violation of state law, our public schools are underfunded. In violation of common sense, our community colleges and universities are underfunded. In violation of common decency, our state agencies are denied the staffing levels they need to properly function, and then they are berated for failing to perform at superhuman levels. In violation of the common good, our highways are deteriorating.
Meanwhile the legislature has been handing out billions of dollars of tax credits and tax cuts. They've given tax credits to shopping center developers, to insurance companies, to natural gas storage companies, and to Walmart. They've given huge tax cuts to multistate corporations. They've even cut taxes on whiskey.
Of the tax cuts, $400 million a year -- almost ten per cent of the general fund -- has yet to kick in. We're headed for a fiscal crisis.
Because of political pressure to do something about highways, there's a scheme to appear to help. It would scrape up a pile of iffy money (from sports betting, increased collections on out of state retail sales, and from a lottery, for example) and take real money away from the general fund. It wouldn't fix our highways, but it might push the problem past next year's elections.
Also, the state treasury is getting money to make up losses it suffered because of the BP oil spill. Instead of using this one-time money for something long-lasting, there's a frenzy to spend it on a politically expedient schemes.
Oh, and there's a plan to take even more money out of the general fund and send it to cities and counties, purportedly for infrastructure. Local governments need help, but this is inadequate, and the general fund can't afford it.
Here's what we need to do.
First, forget the special session and start real, open deliberations about what we should do at the regular session in January (about four months away).
Now, there is speculation about how much additional tax the state will collect from sports betting and from out-of-state retail sales. Each month, we see what those collections actually are. We'll have more real data in January.
I'd establish a state infrastructure bank, fund it with money from the BP settlement and whatever other funds we can afford. I'd have it issue bonds, and I'd allocate those funds to cities and counties, based on population, for real, true infrastructure projects. Compared to the current plan, local governments would get more money and the people would get more infrastructure. If there's going to be a lottery -- which I oppose, by the way -- that's where the lottery proceeds should go.
If we were to freeze the tax cuts and stop giving tax credits to cronies, we'd have enough money to allocate a stream of revenue for highway maintenance -- more than is being discussed now.
Those are just my thoughts. I'm sure there are other ideas and better ones.
Let's take a deep breath, have some public debate, and plan to enact a genuine infrastructure program early in the regular session.
Hob Bryan is a state Senator from Amory.
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