Leaders from Mississippi’s largest business group told the Mississippi Legislature this week that the state is falling behind economically because of the condition of its highways and needs to spend more money on construction and maintenance.
Any tax increase to fund this effort might be a hard sell.
A poll of 500 registered voters commissioned by the Mississippi chapter of Americans for Prosperity and performed by The Polling Co. Inc. revealed that 86 percent of voters would not favor increasing the gasoline tax. And in a shot over the bow of legislators, 73 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for their representative if they voted for a gas tax hike.
Mississippi Economic Council president and CEO Blake Wilson told a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees Thursday that they need to “invest” $375 million more annually for highway construction and maintenance. The majority of that spending, $300 million, would go to state highways and interstates; the rest would go to local cities for road needs.
MDOT executive director Melinda McGrath told the joint committee last week that her department needs $526 million in additional funding.
The MEC has tried to pitch its highway plan as costing the average consumer 37 cents per day in additional taxes. Russell Latino, the state director for AFP, called that a “sales technique” and said a 15-cent per gallon increase would add up to $540 in additional taxes per year for the average family.
Mississippi residents pay 36.4 cents in state and federal taxes on every gallon of gasoline right now. The state’s gas tax was last increased in 1987.
According to a December MEC report on the condition of the state’s highways, every 1 cent increase in the gas tax would yield $21.7 million annually, while a 5 cent increase in the sales tax would add $177.8 million. Each $10 increase in the state’s license tag fee would reap $27.5 million each year.
In fiscal 2016, which ends June 30, the state spent more than $216 million on highway maintenance and $932 million on new construction. The Mississippi Department of Transportation has asked the Legislature for $216 million for maintenance and $792 million in new construction for fiscal 2017. An additional $300 million annually for MDOT would amount to a 26 percent increase in their maintenance and construction budget.
The MEC highway report by researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University said 24,591 lane miles of state-owned highways are in need of repair or preventive maintenance, with a price tag of $2.23 billion. The cost to repair 191 of the state’s 936 bridges, posted with weight limits because of structural wear, would total $2.63 billion. Another $1.14 billion is needed to fix 2,889 locally owned bridges the report called “substandard.”
Wilson said it was best that the MEC leave it to the Legislature to come up with funding options to pay for the additional highway maintenance and construction.
State Sen. Hob Bryan (D-Amory) blasted the MEC during the hearing for suggesting that the sales tax be increased to fund highways while supporting a phaseout of the state’s corporate franchise tax.
“You [the MEC] go out there and say ‘raise the sales tax,’ which you know is the most regressive tax, and cut the corporate [franchise tax], which represents a transfer of the tax burden to the poorest people in the state,” Bryan said.