Good highways are at risk
Given the no-new-taxes determination of the Republican supermajority in the Mississippi Legislature, it is not surprising to read, in a story by The Associated Press, that House and Senate leaders don’t expect a serious effort in 2017 to find extra money for the state’s increasing highway maintenance needs.
It may not be surprising, but it is certainly disappointing. After all, taxpayers put up a lot of money, literally billions of dollars, starting in the 1980s, for a complete overhaul of the Mississippi highway system. And it worked! For a rural, low-population state, we have an excellent network of roads.
The four-laning of many highways across the state over the past three decades was a great help to individual and commercial transportation. The work surely saved many people from being killed in auto accidents in places that used to be more dangerous two-lane roads.
Bottom line, the highway upgrade was an excellent investment of taxpayer money. That’s why it’s so discouraging that so many of today’s influential legislators are unwilling to spend what’s needed to keep up the existing roads. If the Mississippi Department of Transportation is to be believed, the longer this work gets delayed, the more it will cost the state.
It’s pretty clear that a sizable number of lawmakers think MDOT officials are blowing smoke in order to get their way with the Legislature. Indeed, MDOT in the past has been a pretty effective advocate for its own needs, as evidenced by the fancy new headquarters it got to build in Jackson several years ago.
Perhaps lawmakers have a lingering case of sticker shock. The cost per mile of road maintenance has increased greatly. Everybody blamed it on rising oil prices, since that’s a key ingredient of asphalt, but the cost of oil has not been an issue for the past two years. Road costs have not come down nearly as much as oil has.
A third factor in legislative resistance to a higher fuel tax might be the fear that if lawmakers cave for highways, other groups — educators, Medicaid, mental health advocates — will demand the same consideration. A Legislature’s job is to decide, to allocate. It’s impossible to make everyone happy when money is involved, but this should not be an excuse for inaction.
At the end of the day, national anti-tax groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform carry more sway with the Legislature than does the chairman and CEO of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms and the Mississippi Economic Council.
For a second year, Joe Sanderson is leading the MEC’s push for higher fuel and vehicle taxes to raise an extra $375 million annually for highways. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee led tours this summer to show his peers the needs. The Mississippi Association of Supervisors is on board.
Among the leaders who do not seem convinced of the merits of more highway spending are the most influential men in politics: Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn. Until that changes, highway funding is unlikely to improve. The state is putting 30 years of good roads at risk.