Business leaders: More road, bridge funding needed now

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Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

MEC Interim President Scott Waller speaks on the need for a long-term plan for infrastructure funding at the State Capitol.

State business leaders made clear on Wednesday that they are willing to help legislators secure more funding for roads and bridges in the 2017 legislative session.

The Mississippi Economic Council held a press conference in the wake of the death of the internet sales tax bill on Monday. Speaker of the House Philip Gunn had suggested that revenue from that proposed tax be put toward road and bridge infrastructure needs.

But the bill was never taken up in committee on the Senate side, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves announced Monday he was letting the bill die. Reeves said the bill was unconstitutional, citing a 1992 Supreme Court decision stating that only sales from companies with a physical presence in the state can be subject to state sales or use taxes.

A bond bill passed by the House of Representatives adding $50 million to cities and counties for infrastructure improvements is still alive, and many of those backing highway improvements are hopeful the Senate will add more money to the bill.

Gunn said on Wednesday he was “disappointed” the internet sales tax bill, House Bill 480, did not survive. He noted it would have brought between $100 million to $150 million of continuous revenue to transportation each year.

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn describes efforts made by the House of Representatives to fund infrastructure.

Gunn did say, however, he was confident the $50 million bond bill for cities and counties would move forward.

Mississippi Economic Council Interim President Scott Waller displayed responses from 4,800 Mississippians gathered in recent days urging lawmakers to develop a plan to fix the state’s roads and bridges.

“The responses show how important safe and reliable transportation is for our state, both from a safety and an economic standpoint,” Waller said.

The Mississippi Economic Council released a study in 2015 showing an investment of $375 million annually is needed to address the most vital road and bridge issues in the state. The study, called Excelerate Mississippi, was conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University.

Mississippi Municipal League President Jimmy Clyde was one of several to speak in support of MEC’s mission to improve the state’s roads and bridges.

“Cities, towns and villages are responsible for more than 23,000 miles of streets. Over 50 percent of Mississippi citizens who live in municipalites expect and deserve safe, well-maintained streets,” Clyde said. The cost of keeping up those streets, however, “continues to outpace current municipal revenue stream,” he said.

Waller emphasized that he is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure more funding this fiscal year.

“If there are any options that remain, we want to make sure we’re exploring those while at the same time continuing to look to the future,” he said.

“If we continue to wait and do nothing, it’s only going to get worse.”

Mississippi Economic Council

This Capitol Rotunda display Wednesday includes maps showing highway repair needs and letters sent to the Mississippi Economic Council in support of additional transportation funding.

In a press release, MEC noted that 2,300 state and local bridges already are restricted from carrying the legal weight limit for which they were designed.

The MEC estimates that the average Mississippi driver would save $530 in vehicle damage such as tire alignments, cracked windshields and flat tires if roads were properly maintained.

Repairing the state’s highway infrastructure would lead to the creation of 7,000 additional jobs, according to the MEC report.