Editorial roundup

How fuel-tax hike can be sold

By Tim Kalich

Greenwood Commonwealth

The Republican Party in Mississippi boasts of being business-friendly.

Since taking control of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, it has pushed through large corporate tax cuts, opposed efforts by Washington to push more costs and regulations on businesses, and given away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks or other incentives for companies to locate or expand in this state.

Republicans, though, have turned a frustratingly deaf ear to the pleading from the business community to address the deteriorating condition of the state’s highways, roads and bridges, and ignored the same business community’s endorsement of raising taxes to finance the work.

How come?

That’s what I asked some Delta Council leaders during their discussion last week with a number of publishers from newspapers owned in the region by the same company, Emmerich Newspapers, that owns the Commonwealth.

Some of the answers I already knew.

Most Republicans in the Legislature have committed themselves to not raising taxes, no matter the purpose, and are afraid of getting beat in their next election if they reverse course.

They are scared of voter anger and of being targeted by deep-pocketed conservative groups, such as those financed by the Koch brothers, who put so much money into political activities that they go after not only members of Congress but state lawmakers, too.

I also heard a couple of explanations of which I was unaware.

One, that state lawmakers don’t much like the Mississippi Department of Transportation, in large part because the Legislature has less influence over it than other state agencies since MDOT gets most of its money from dedicated sources, primarily the excise tax on fuel.

Also, I heard that Delta lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, would be unlikely to support a gas-tax increase because they believe this part of the state would be slighted in whatever work gets done.

They have reason for that distrust. The power base in Mississippi, like the population, is shifting away from rural, traditionally Democratic areas to Republican, urban ones. That’s great for DeSoto County, the Jackson suburbs and the Gulf Coast, but not so sweet for the Delta.

Chip Morgan, the longtime executive vice president of Delta Council, believes, however, there is a way to overcome  the resistance within the Legislature and the public to a major infrastructure repair program: State in the law precisely what’s going to happen with the extra revenue generated by the tax increase.

It’s not enough, according to Morgan, just to say that a fuel-tax increase will be earmarked for road and bridge maintenance. The law should spell out what roads and bridges will be fixed and according to what timetable. Do this, Morgan says, and the public will support paying more at the pump.

This is akin to the approach the Legislature used in 1987, when it enacted the four-lane highway construction program that built a lot of the roadway now starting to deteriorate for lack of maintenance. This was also the last time lawmakers increased the fuel tax.

That legislation spelled out where four-lane roads would be built and in which of three phases. Although the Legislature had to extend the deadline for completion because road-building costs rose faster than revenues, MDOT didn’t deviate from the plan. It couldn’t. It was in the law.

The political fallout from that tax increase was almost non-existent. Only one lawmaker who voted for it was beat in the next election, Morgan says.

It might be cumbersome to try to give the same degree of specificity to highway repair and maintenance as was given to construction, since you’d be talking about smaller stretches of work. But there is a logical way to prioritize it. Every bridge and every stretch of highway pavement have a government rating, based on objective engineering criteria, as to their condition. The law could specify by these ratings, starting with the lowest-rated first, as to the phases in which the work will be done.

Under such an arrangement, the Delta would be guaranteed of getting its fair share of improvements, as it has some of the oldest highways in the state.

Last year, the Mississippi Economic Council produced a study that estimated it would cost $375 million extra a year to tackle the worst of the state’s infrastructure problems.

It would take roughly 17 cents more in fuel taxes per gallon to come up with that amount of money.

Although that’s nearly double the 18.4 cents the state presently charges, the increase would still be almost 20 percent less than what the tax would have been had it just kept up with inflation over the past 30 years.

Walton Gresham, president of Indianola-based fuel distributor Gresham Petroleum Co., says if the tax increase, which he supports, is going to happen, it’s got to happen this legislative session. By next year, lawmakers will already be focused on the 2019 elections and won’t touch anything they fear opponents might use against them.

If lawmakers fail to act, however, for yet another term in office, instead of costing $375 million more annually to fix the problem, it may be $450 million more three years down the road.

Putting this off any longer is just bad business.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

Rumormonger now rumor victim

 

Donald Trump’s criticism of BuzzFeed for publishing unsubstantiated and scandalous allegations about the president-elect and his camp is justified.

It was journalistically irresponsible for the online news site, which likes to say it’s a new-wave but legitimate news organization, to publish the 35-page dossier, commissioned by political opponents of Trump’s during the 2016 election, without being able to verify the damaging claims in it: namely, that Trump’s camp colluded with the Russians during the election, and that the Russians had incriminating evidence of sexual misconduct by Trump that it could use as blackmail.

News organizations, including this one, are recipients of rumors all the time, some of them pretty wild. They are expected to ascertain that the allegations have some truth to them before disseminating them — not only because that’s the legally prudent thing to do but because it’s the fair thing to do. If you are going to damage a person’s reputation, including even someone as self-destructive as Trump, you have an obligation to try to be certain that the aspersions are grounded in fact.

That said, Trump’s complaints about despicable rumormongering are more than a bit ironic, given that he has been plenty guilty of abetting the practice himself.

He became, for instance, the main mouthpiece for the “birther movement” and for years kept alive the unsubstantiated — and eventually disproven — allegation that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and thus should not have been eligible to become president. He alleged during last year’s GOP primary race that Ted Cruz’s father had been linked to John F. Kennedy’s assassin, a fiction he gleaned from National Enquirer, one of the old-school pioneers in fake news.

Trump trumpeted damaging or hurtful information about his political adversaries that was not only unproven but most likely he knew to be false. That’s worse than what BuzzFeed did. It may have published unsubstantiated rumors, but it didn’t publish them knowing or suspecting they had to be untrue. BuzzFeed was guilty of negligence. Trump was guilty of malice.

Once someone unleashes the furies of lies, gossip and rumors, he doesn’t elicit a whole lot of sympathy when they turn against him.

Weak texting law isn’t working

When lawmen decide that enforcing a law is more hassle than its worth, that’s a poorly written law.

Such seems to be the case with Mississippi’s ban on texting while driving.

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson reported this weekend that Highway Patrol officials say the state’s ban on texting behind the wheel is too complicated and the punishment too minor for offenders. As a result, when state troopers catch someone guilty of the dangerous practice, they often ticket them for careless driving instead.

The problem is that texting while driving in Mississippi is considered a civil offense, not a criminal one. To enforce the law, the citing officer has to go to justice court and file an affidavit against the offender. Apparently, most troopers have decided it’s not worth the trouble. They have written just 148 tickets during the law’s first 1½ years in existence.

The law needs to be fixed.  When it was passed in 1995, proponents knew the law wasn’t perfect. It’s time to start perfecting it.

Tim Kalich

Editor and Publisher

Greenwood Commonwealth