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After an audit of the Mississippi Department of Transportation showed few budget management issues, elected and transportation industry officials are renewing calls for more money to manage the state’s highway system.
While the findings of the audit called for MDOT to better manage its vehicle fleet and its schedule of projects, the report also found that the transportation department meets or exceeds industry standards in most regards. The state auditor oversaw the audit, which lawmakers mandated through legislation in 2018 and a national firm conducted.
The audit follows several legislative oversight and internal audits conducted over the past 10 years that showed MDOT managed its finances well. Meanwhile, legislative leaders have long balked at long-term funding solutions for the department until questions about misspending were answered.
“Are we ever going to have the vision to embark on something as politically terrifying as planning for the future?” former Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said on Monday.
Hall, speaking Monday at a press corps luncheon hosted by the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, made the case for an increase in the state’s fuel tax, which has not increased since 1987, making Mississippi one of just two states that hasn’t raised the tax since then.
Despite the lack of new revenue generation in the past 30 years, the cost of infrastructure building materials has increased 600 percent, Hall said after presenting the cost breakdown to luncheon attendees.
“The governor and leadership of many of these legislatures (that recently passed gas tax increases) were serving as Republicans,” Hall said. “I’m told I served as a Republican elected official longer than anyone ever has in Mississippi. I want to suggest that ‘no new taxes’ is a slogan, not a solution. And as a Republican, I’m in favor of a solution.”
The scope of the problems, as MDOT officials define them, are sobering.
At a 2018 legislative budget meeting, MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said that of just 116 of the 1,798 miles of interstate roadways that need repair can be addressed annually; of the 2,244 miles of four-lane roadways, just 500 miles are repaired annually. Of the 7,534 miles of two-lane highways in the state, just 1,000 miles are repaired annually, she said.
As legislative leaders have pointed to the potential for misspending at MDOT as reason to put off sweeping funding reforms, they’ve tightened scrutiny of the department.
In the fall of 2016, then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, hosted a series of legislative hearings to put MDOT’s spending under the microscope. They pointedly questioned MDOT leaders about agency travel, the size of its vehicle fleet and why specific projects remained uncompleted.
During the 2018 legislative session, Reeves pushed a sweeping infrastructure funding reform bill that would have broadly stripped MDOT’s spending authority of hundreds of millions of dollars per year; tempers flared among the rank-and-file in both the Senate and House over Reeves’ proposal, which ultimately failed.
In addition to legislative criticism, MDOT has been a target of several rounds of budget cuts in recent years, which has forced to the agency to focus exclusively on maintenance and not new construction.
MDOT leaders have said that they cannot continue maintaining the state’s highway system at current funding levels, and conservative estimates suggest the department needs between $300 million and $400 million more a year to do so.
On Monday morning, an advocacy group called Fix Mississippi Roads, which represents several dozen road-building companies, called on lawmakers to pass “a long-term, comprehensive and sustainable funding solution.”
Legislative leaders passed an infrastructure funding package in a 2018 special session. As a result, MDOT will receive up to $80 million a year from the state lottery for nine years and an estimated $3 million a year from sports betting revenue for nine years. MDOT also received about $37 million in one-time bond funds from that package.
Facing continued asks for additional money, several top elected officials have recently expressed some appetite to increase the gasoline tax in some way.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann campaigned in 2019 on the possibility and said in December 2019 that he supported a local gas tax increase that would give individual counties the ability to vote on whether or not to increase the tax in their communities. Gunn has supported a similar proposal in past years. Neither official has publicly supported an increase in the statewide gasoline tax.
Reeves, meanwhile, remains defiantly opposed to any increase in the fuel tax — state or local — going as far as issuing a warning to lawmakers on statewide conservative radio less than a month before the 2020 legislative session began.
While an increased gasoline tax has been pushed by several lawmakers and advocacy groups, not everyone is sold. Key legislative Democrats — including House minority leader Robert Johnson, D-Natchez — oppose an increase in the tax because of its potential effect on poor Mississippians.
Democrats have proposed rolling back large corporate tax cuts that have saved mostly out-of-state companies millions at the expense of tax revenue collections.
“The first step in dealing with the budget problems and the infrastructure problems is to put a freeze on the reckless tax cuts passed by the Republicans in the Legislature,” Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, told Mississippi Today last year.