Highway commissioner skewers Legislature for handling of infrastructure, budget

August 28, 2018 10:24:20 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Dick Hall pulled no punches in his address to the Starkville Rotary Club Monday, ripping the Mississippi Legislature for what he calls an impending economic crisis due mainly to big tax cuts implemented over the past three years. 


In his role as Mississippi's Central District highway commissioner since 1999, Hall has been a consistent critic of Legislature for its failure to properly address the state's roads/bridges infrastructure crisis, but his criticism went beyond that topic. 


As the former chairman of the state Senate's appropriations committee and a six-term legislator prior to his role as highway commissioner, Hall said the state faces a financial disaster comparable to that of Louisiana, and for the same reasons. 


"I'm at the point in my life that I'm going to say what is so, no matter what," Hall, 80, told a packed house at the Starkville Country Club. "There is going to be a serious problem, if not a crisis, in funding state government in the foreseeable future. As the former appropriations chairman, I can see it coming, and it's going to touch everything from public education, medical care, mental heath, law enforcement, higher education. Everything. 


"In the next few years, the $400 million in tax cuts that have been enacted by the Legislature are going to start showing up," he added. "That's $400 million a year less to the general fund every year. Louisiana did the same thing and they have a $1 billion deficit. That's where we are headed, I'm afraid. In 42 years of public service, I don't remember a time when I have been so concerned about our lack of an economic plan." 


Hall's critique of the Legislature came after addressing the status of the state's roads/bridges. As the chair of the three-member Highway Commission, Hall had advocated an increase in the state's 18.4-cent fuel tax, a tax implemented in 1987 when Mississippi embarked on its four-lane highway project. 


"I would argue with anyone that the 1987 four-lane program was the single biggest economic development advance for our state in the last century," Hall said. "People talk about running government like a business. Well, would you invest $12 billion and then not take care of that kind of a capital investment? Our highway system is ranked 41st in the nation, the same highway system that was once ranked sixth in the nation and No. 1 in the South." 


Hall said he has hoped the Legislature, which has been in special session since Thursday, would have completed a plan for the state's roads/bridges by the time he spoke Monday. 


"I thought maybe I'd be able to tell you what the plan is, but they are still working on it," he said. "What I expect them to do is possibly pass a state lottery and give MDOT $80 million a year for the next 10 years. What we need right now is $400 million every year from now on.  


"You have over a thousand bridges that are structurally deficient," he continued. "That will cost $1 billion to fix. We have over 5,000 miles of state highways that need repairs. That will cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion. That's just to get everything back to shape. But the costs go on. We have to have the money to sustain it. What the Legislature is talking about is nowhere near solving the problem. What I say is that an increase in the fuel tax is the best way to solve the problem." 


Hall said Mississippi has the third lowest fuel tax in the nation. It hasn't increased since it was implemented 31 years ago. 


"I guess people are saying I must be a Democrat to stand up here and call for a tax increase," Hall said. "I'm the longest serving Republican in a state-wide office in the state. I know I don't sound like a Republican, but we have to have a highway system and we have to have a plan to maintain it. I won't apologize for that." 


Speaking to The Dispatch, State Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) rebuked Hall and indicated he believed the highway commissioner's criticisms are unfounded. 


"I think it's a good bill," Younger said of the infrastructure legislation being considered in special session. "Look, MDOT is going to get plenty of money. They already get over $1 billion every year, so I don't know what Dick is complaining about. He ought to be happy he's getting anything."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]