Roads funding plan hits dead end

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A House leader is shelving a roads funding proposal he laid out just a few weeks ago in hopes that Gov. Phil Bryant will call a special legislative session to address infrastructure funding.

In late January, Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, who leads the House transportation committee, floated a plan to raise the state’s fuel tax and eliminate the 4 percent income tax bracket.

But in an interview with Mississippi Today on Wednesday, Busby started walking back the idea, saying there is too little time to draft a bill and present it to legislative leaders before a Feb. 21 deadline to pass bills related to spending and taxation.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula and chairman of the House transportation committee

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get on with that program quickly and not just put it off, and that we will have a special session in the summer. The governor is saying he’d call a special session, and we’ll deal with it then,” Busby told Mississippi Today.

Instead, Busby said legislative leaders would likely review the details of President Donald Trump’s recently released infrastructure plan, which could prompt Gov. Phil Bryant — a close ally to Trump — to call a special session later this summer to take up an infrastructure spending plan.

The White House’s $1.5 trillion proposal calls for spending $200 billion in federal transportation funds while states and local governments provide the rest. Busby’s decision to hold off on the income-for-fuel tax swap follows comments in which Gov. Bryant hinted at a special session in a recent Clarion-Ledger story.

“The lawmaking process in Congress will have to run its course. … Because it is still early, I believe it would be wise to wait for the federal plan to be finalized into law before we act on any of the proposals currently in the Legislature,” Bryant said, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

A spokeswoman for Reeves said she did not have any information about a special session.

Various reports commissioned in recent years have estimated that the Legislature should earmark between $375 million and $400 million more per year for the state Department of Transportation. Busby acknowledged that even with help from the federal government, the state has a tough hill to climb to start addressing its infrastructure challenges.

In addition to the tax swap idea, which Busby said would be revenue neutral, other options include the state entering into public-private partnerships and the use of toll roads, he said.

Of the challenge of coming up with an infrastructure funding plan that would survive the Legislature and be amenable to the leadership, Busby added:

“I believe many feel that the general fund is being squeezed already, and we’re not providing sufficient funding for other things that may be near and dear to them — whether they be education, mental illness, Medicaid, whatever it may be. Maybe we can find a way to do this without squeezing the general fund.”