In ‘desperate’ situation, voters could give green light to highway projects

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Senate leaders say they are open to a lawmaker’s proposal to hold a statewide vote to fund road and bridge projects around the state.

Mississippi Senate

Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl

Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, is drafting a bill that calls for statewide referendum in each of the state’s transportation districts.

Based on a similar model in Georgia, he said his proposed legislation would give voters more power when it comes to funding which projects get the green light, but also bumps up related taxes and fees.

In recent years, Georgia has held several referenda on what are called transportation special-purpose local option sales tax with mixed success.

Kirby, a member of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said each district would have transportation projects presented to them and they would be the ones to decide which would get funded.

“Voters would know exactly what they are voting for and where their money would be spent,” Kirby said in an email.

The draft plan calls for an 8 percent of the 8 percent, about 1.5 cent increase, on the state’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon fuel tax. MDOT receives no general-fund dollars, and most of the agency’s funding comes from the fuel tax.

Kirby’s proposal also includes an increase of $2.50 per tire when customers buy new tires, and an annual fee of $150 on electric cars and $75 for hybrid vehicles.

Kirby argues that most voters buy tires every four to eight years, and that owners of electric and hybrid vehicles do not pay a road use tax since they do not purchase fuel.

“Automakers have already announced they are moving toward electric vehicles and we must plan for the future,” Kirby said.

Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall addressed Mississippi’s infrastructure and possible transportation funding mechanisms at the Capitol press corps luncheon.

Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall announced Kirby’s draft proposal while addressing Mississippi’s infrastructure funding mechanisms at a recent Capitol press corps luncheon.

Hall, the Central District commissioner and chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, said the department needs about $400 million more a year to sufficiently address the state’s infrastructure problem, and he considers the state’s gas tax outdated.

The Senate Transportation Committee held hearings in August with MDOT leaders about their needs and asked the Department of Revenue to estimate new revenues if the state’s gas tax was raised by 8 cents. Revenue officials said the rate would generate about $164 million per year more.

The agency also submitted a budget request in September reflecting a decrease of about $100 million for next year’s general operations.

“Today, we are dealing with what is rapidly becoming in Mississippi a desperate, short-term situation problem that we need some kind of quick time response to,” Hall said. “A fuel tax is the easiest thing to adjust.”

Sen. Willie Simmons, chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said he is pleased to see any proposals, as he thinks the state’s current transportation funding system is too antiquated to meet the state’s growing infrastructure needs.

“I have not taken anything off the table,” Simmons, D-Cleveland, said. “… Hopefully, as we go through the process, we can work together and get enough votes to pass a meaningful piece of legislation that would generate some funds for our highways and bridges.”

Ultimately, the decision hinges on the desires of Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been a staunch opponent of raising the gas tax but has supported ballot initiatives in the past, such as on the question of whether to keep of change the state flag.

Although Reeves maintains that the state’s transportation agency should look for ways to improve efficiency, he indicated that government watchdogs should pay close attention should a ballot initiative take place.

“I continue to believe the first step must be for MDOT to more efficiently manage the more than $7 billion the Legislature has spent on roads and bridges over the past six years,” Reeves said in a statement. “If voters were to vote to increase funding, there should be detailed plans on how to spend the money on projects that are necessary to grow our economy.”

Speaker Philip Gunn declined to comment on the draft legislation in the absence of all the details of the plan or bill at the moment.