With the Legislature's annual session rapidly approaching, proponents of increasing the state's gasoline tax are trying to sell a crisis with the state's infrastructure for a third consecutive year.
A recent Millsaps College poll shows that a majority of Mississippians believe that fixing the state's roads and bridges is a priority. Whether they are prepared to pay more at the gasoline pump depends on what poll you read.
During his appearance at the Stennis Capitol Press Club, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall told the media that the Mississippi Department of Transportation needed a $400 million boost annually in their already $1.2 billion budget. He says the gasoline tax is the easiest tax to increase to give MDOT a 33 percent budget increase.
Hall says 2,000 bridges need to be repaired or replaced at a cost of $2 billion and 1,000 lane-miles of state-controlled highways need repair or replacement at another billion. Using Hall's numbers, pumping $400 million of taxpayer dollars annually into MDOT would fix the infrastructure backlog in seven and a half years.
If you think once the problem is solved and MDOT's budget can be cut accordingly, you really don't know government. The $1.6 billion will become a new, permanent baseline for MDOT's budget and in 10 years, we'll get a lecture about how we need even more money to fix another infrastructure crisis even though the average life of a highway bridge is 70 years.
The gasoline tax will remain higher, even if the alleged task for the tax hike is completed because our betters in government will tell you that they just can't do without the revenue.
The Republican transportation commissioner says that 28 states have increased their gasoline tax, while ours hasn't increased in 30 years. To a lot of people who enjoy Mississippi's lower cost of living, that's a good thing, not a reason to increase taxes.
And is the crisis really that severe? A list of 216 closed city and county bridges was given to the Legislature in March, but upon further examination, only half of the bridges were actually closed to traffic and several were newly constructed or in near-perfect condition—on the list in error. The cost for replacing or repairing all of the posted bridges on the list would add up to $59.6 million.
According to the most recent highway report from the Reason Foundation, only 1.81 percent of the pavement of Mississippi rural interstates are in poor condition, while 3.43 percent of urban interstate pavement and only 0.57 percent of the pavement on arterial, non-interstate highways was listed in poor condition.
Hall and state Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl) worked in concert to float a trial balloon on Kirby's proposed bill that he intends to file when the Legislature comes to Jackson in January. Kirby doesn't propose increasing the state's gasoline tax directly. Instead, his bill, if passed into law, would lead to a statewide referendum on increasing the gasoline tax and several other fees to help raise money to deal with the infrastructure crisis.
Hall, a former state legislator in both houses, even criticized this proposal since the Legislature is basically passing the buck to the people. It would give legislators who vote yes on the proposal the ability to say to their constituents: "Well, I didn't vote for a tax increase. You did." It's nothing more than a fig leaf of cover for the 2019 elections.
Legislators have tried every kind of method to pay for roads and bridges:
Converting the gasoline tax into a conventional gas tax
Indexing the gasoline tax to its price rather than 18.79 cent per gallon charge we have now
Internet sales tax
Income from the no-longer voluntary sales tax deal with Amazon (now that it bought Whole Foods, it has a "physical nexus" in the state and can be charged with collecting sales tax).
If pro-tax increase forces are turned away again this session, there will be a respite as no legislator wants to answer to their voters in an election year about a tax increase. Barring a large increase in the price of gasoline, expect this issue to come back up in 2020 like a brood of cicadas.
There's an easy solution to fix this crisis: Bonds. The Legislature has, up until last year, annually put together a Christmas tree bond bill with all sorts of pork barrel projects. Instead, we could use that indebtedness to pay for some road and bridge repair or replacement. They've done it before and could easily wipe out the repair/replacement backlog in a few years.
That makes far too much sense. Selling a crisis and getting a permanent gasoline tax increase is the ultimate goal here.