Speaker Philip Gunn — left with a sour taste in his mouth after multiple failed efforts last session to find additional infrastructure funding — pushed five roads funding bills through committee on Wednesday, the second day of the legislative session.
One of the bills, House Bill 355, removes the Mississippi Department of Transportation from the State Personnel Board, which leaders said would give the department more flexibility to spend more on infrastructure.
“I don’t think there’s any devious or covert plan here,” said Rep. John Read, R-Gautier and chairman of the House Appropriations committee. “It’s to try to get some latitude and flexibility for the agency.”
Other bills would direct additional funding to entities that pay for road and bridge maintenance while a final bill addresses new road construction:
— House Bill 358 would divert half of internet sales tax revenue collected each year — typically about $40 million a year — to a new fund created in the treasury. The Legislature could then authorize appropriations from that fund to infrastructure projects.
— House Bill 357 would authorize the sale of bonds to help municipalities pay for infrastructure repair.
— House Bill 354 would direct any surplus revenues beyond the 98 percent in the budget proposal to the state transportation department, counties and cities.
— House Bill 359 would impose a moratorium on most new road construction if right-of-ways have not already been acquired. The bill was later amended to add a loophole for economic development projects.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said HB 359 is designed to give the transportation department a breather and catch up with existing road maintenance before building new ones. The bill met criticism from Democrats, including Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who said less populous counties would be hurt by the bill.
“We seem to be helping the rich (areas) get richer and the poor get poorer,” Johnson said.
Gunn sponsored four of the bills, and Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula and chairman of the House Transportation committee, sponsored the other.
The second term speaker attempted in several ways last session to find additional funding for the state’s roads and bridges, which business leaders and some politicians have labeled as “crumbling.” Those plans were ultimately thwarted by Senate leadership, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
One plan, which was backed by the Mississippi Economic Council and Gov. Phil Bryant, would have diverted the existing online sales tax – which is currently set up as a voluntary use tax – to infrastructure improvements.
That plan, introduced late in the 2017 regular session, resulted in an impasse between Gunn and Reeves, with the lieutenant governor calling the plan “unconstitutional.” In the dramatic hours before the 2017 deadline, House leaders sent two transportation bills back to the Senate for more negotiation.
Reeves told reporters as the deadline for action approached that the House demanded the insertion of a provision that would “create an internet sales tax” and divert an existing use tax to help fund road and bridge improvements across the state. Senate leaders, led by Reeves, stuck to their previously stated views on the issue that the taxes are illegal and refused to budge.
Gunn told reporters at the time that a press release put out by Reeves’ team was inaccurate because of its reference to the creation of a tax.
“Its not the implementation of a tax,” Gunn said. “It just says whatever we (already) collect, a portion of that would be devoted to roads and bridges.
“The House has put forth three separate attempts, two of which were in response to issue that the lieutenant governor and the Senate raised,” Gunn said. “And not once has the Senate at the other end of the hall sat down with us to discuss this.”
“That’s certainly their prerogative to stand on the House floor and lie,” Reeves said in response. “The Republicans have the votes to save taxpayers $30,000 a day for a special session. The Republicans in the House have the votes to keep us from having to spend taxpayer money to keep us from raising taxes.”
Ultimately, the appropriations deadline passed with three agencies – MDOT, Attorney General’s Office and State Aid Roads – missing out on funding in the regular session. Funding for those three agencies were finalized in a two-day special session in late June.
At a legislative hearing hosted in the fall, lawmakers heard yet another bleak outlook from the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
The bottom line, MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said: State crews cannot keep up with the rate of declining conditions of the state’s roads and bridges under current funding.
MDOT, despite the help of powerful lobbyists and interest groups, has failed for several years to convince the Legislature to fund its stated needs: $400 million more per year — a conservative estimate — to sufficiently address the state’s infrastructure problem.
MDOT’s budget for the current fiscal year, about $1.2 billion, is made up of revenue collected from the state’s 18.4-cent gas tax and federal transportation funds. State Aid Roads received about $175 million in general funds for the current fiscal year.
Other legislative efforts floated this session, though not yet filed in bill form, would increase the gas tax by several cents.
Contributing: R.L. Nave