Since summer, legislative working groups have held hearings with Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath on topics ranging from personnel to travel expenses. And taxpayers’ appetite for improved roads and bridges has intensified.
Now, with the Legislature convening Jan. 3 for the 2017 session, the question becomes: What is the state’s appetite for infrastructure construction and repair, and how can any action be funded?
“I don’t think we found any smoking guns. I don’t think we found a high level of inefficiency,” said Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula. “I think we can gain some efficiencies out of there, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to fix our problem.”
In advance of the new legislative session, only one plan has been announced.
Senators Angela Turner, D-West Point; Hob Bryan, D-Amory; David Blount, D-Jackson; and Sollie Norwood, D-Hinds, proposed a plan to raise $416 million annually by repealing the franchise tax cut passed last spring and diverting that money toward highway and bridge repairs.
“We’re not going to be able to maintain roads and bridges without general fund revenue,” Bryan told Mississippi Today when the proposal was made in November. “Generally speaking, the gasoline tax has been how the highway department has been funded, but that is not a feasible way to fund roads in the future.”
Turner says, “It’s irresponsible for us to allow this law to remain on the books. To allow this tax cut to be implemented years down the road without a financial plan in place to take care of those services that we all need.”
State Republicans have been making plans of their own for funding infrastructure, Busby said.
“I think I’m going to have maybe five funding bills drafted, just so that we’ve got bills in the hopper with different (funding) mechanisms that we can jump on and find which one is the favored way to do it,” Busby said.
“We’ve had some small discussions with the (transportation) committee and with the speaker (of the House). But I think the jury is still out,” Busby said. “We need to come up with the right plan with the right kind of accountability. With that, we would stand a chance to get something passed.”
Despite partisan divisions, polling suggests that nationally a majority of people are in favor of tax money being spent on public transportation.
In a post-election poll, the majority of President-elect Donald Trump’s supporters advocated tax dollars being spent on public transportation. The poll, prepared for the American Public Transportation Association, shows that nationally 69 percent of all respondents felt that public transportation infrastructure is in crisis; 63 percent of Trump voters felt the same way.
“I think those numbers are probably pretty accurate in Mississippi,” said Busby. “I think the vast majority of Mississippians think we need to do something with our infrastructure. And I think the majority of my constituents believe we need to do something to fix our roads and bridges.”
He sees infrastructure improvement just below public education funding on the priority list. But he adds that political expediency might be at odds with the prospect of more funding for the state’s infrastructure system.
“I think the vast majority of legislators think we need to do something with our infrastructure, but they are just mighty, mighty concerned about the impact of a tax increase on their political career,” Busby said. “They think it is the right thing to do; they just don’t think it’s the politically astute thing to do.”
As infrastructure funding stands, the state’s road, bridge and multimodal systems are paid for through a kerfuffle of municipal, county, state and national monies. Unlike many other state agencies, the Mississippi Department of Transportation does not receive direct appropriations from the state’s general fund. Rather, a certain amount is appropriated by the Legislature from incoming revenue from places such as the state gas tax. The department relies on that money to fund much of its work.
According to the fiscal year 2016 projection, the department’s revenue was approximately $975 million when federal funds, the state fuel tax and other assorted taxes, fees and reimbursements are combined.
Commissioner Mike Tagert of the Northern District told Mississippi Today that he didn’t believe his department’s funding woes could be settled through one source.
Tagert said the Mississippi Economic Council’s push last spring for an additional $375 million to the projected $975 million in funding felt a little spare for the responsibilities of the department. But being pragmatic, Tagert said he was willing to accept what he could get.
“Because of the nature of the large amount of funding and resources needed to address the program long term, the MEC ultimately campaigned for an additional $375 million for infrastructure,” he said. “They knew it wouldn’t be everything we needed, but it was a reasonable number and palatable one.
“It was only just a couple of years ago that people were wondering whether or not the need was there,” Tagert said. “If you get people to recognize there is an issue, we can begin working on a solution.”