Mississippi’s 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax, which is the fourth lowest in the nation, is becoming a major issue in this year’s campaign for governor.

The campaign of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is accusing Attorney General Jim Hood of flip-flopping on the issue of whether the gasoline tax should be increased to help pay for the state’s road and bridge needs.

Parker Briden, a spokesperson for the Reeves campaign, said, “Jim Hood has been very clear about his support for raising the gas tax, and if he’s trying to walk it back now that is a cowardly move. He took every opportunity to criticize Tate Reeves for refusing to raise taxes, and now he’s trying to be on both sides of the issue. It’s pathetic. Here’s what we know – Jim Hood said that raising the gas tax is an easy solution. Tate Reeves says it would be too hard on working families and he won’t support it.”

Bobby Harrison

For much of the campaign, Reeves has spent his considerable campaign resources trying to tie Hood to national Democrats, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But the issue of increasing the gasoline tax is turning into one of the defining issues of this year’s campaign for governor as numerous candidates lament the poor conditions of roads and bridges and look for ways to fund improvements.

Reeves, the front-runner on the Republican side, points out he is the only Republican in the race opposed to increasing the gas tax. His Republican opponents, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and state Rep. Robert Foster, say they support increasing the tax as part of a tax swap, such as reducing the income tax while increasing the tax on motor fuel.

But it is Hood, the front-runner on the Democratic side, who is garnering the most attention from Reeves on the issue.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, left, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speak during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

In response to questions about the gasoline tax, the Hood campaign said, Our crumbling roads and bridges reflect eight years of failed leadership by Tate Reeves. An increase in the gas tax as a remedy for his mess should be considered only as a last resort. Instead of using our tax dollars to fix these problems, Reeves has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to out-of-state corporations, many of whom are his campaign contributors.  Jim Hood believes working people need a tax cut first, such as cutting the sales tax on groceries.  Hood will work with both parties to find a way to fix our roads and bridges, while giving Mississippians a tax break.”

It is true that Hood – at least before he announced his campaign for governor – did on more than one occasion voice support for increasing the state’s 18.4-cent per gallon gasoline tax, which is the fourth lowest in the nation.

For instance, in a 2018 news release at the end of the legislative session, Hood criticized Senate leaders for failing “to consider funding road and bridge repairs partially with a fuel tax.” In various news articles, prior to announcing for governor late in 2018, Hood appeared to endorse the gasoline tax.

To be perfectly honest, various journalists have assumed raising the gasoline tax was part of his campaign based on some of those comments. But his campaign says such is not the case. Many Democrats maintain all taxes, including those slashed by the Republican majority during the past eight years, should be on the table when looking at how to fund roads and bridges.

Various Democrats, including Hood, have criticized the legislative leadership, including Reeves, for multiple tax cuts that will over the next 10 years take about $415 million (in today’s dollars) out of the state general fund tax collections, which were $5.9 billion for the current fiscal year. That tax cut comes on top other cuts in the last eight years taking more than $325 million out of the general fund.

Reeves maintains the tax cuts are growing the state’s economy. Unemployment is low.

The number of people working finally in early 2018 exceeded the number working in Mississippi before the 2008 recession. The number of Mississippians in the work force has continued to grow since then.

But for much of the time since the 2008 recession, the state economy has grown at a much slower rate than that of the nation and of other states. In 2018, the Mississippi gross domestic product grew by 1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis – the largest annual growth rate increase since before the recession.

Those statistics and others will be debated thoroughly this election cycle.

In addition, Hood will hit Reeves for not doing enough to address transportation needs during the past eight years. Reeves will lambaste Hood for talking about wanting to spend more on roads and bridges but not saying where he will get that additional money.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.