COLUMBIA — Sid Salter makes some good points about outgoing Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s affability, which has served him well in working with legislators and state business leaders, and the stronger economy in the state now than when Bryant took office eight years ago.
I’ll throw in that Bryant’s terms have been remarkably free of scandal and that he’s been a friend of openness in government.
But none of that is what I’ll remember Bryant for. Rather it will be his unwillingness to try to push through an adequate fix for Mississippi’s road and bridge crisis.
Let’s review the history.
The Legislature last raised the gas tax in 1987. Supported by the state’s business community, the law included a clear plan for four-laning highways from Corinth to the Coast and passed in an election year by one vote. Not one legislator who voted for it lost his re-election bid.
Those highways got built, greatly improving transportation in the state, but the problem has been finding money to maintain them.
That’s because of the way the gas tax is charged. It’s based on gallons used, not price. And as vehicles have become more efficient over the past 33 years, gallons used and thus road funding have been flat. Yet expenses have dramatically increased because of inflation. We’re trying to keep up Mississippi’s vital thoroughfares on 1980s funding.
It’s not working, and the people know it.
They’re tired of breaking their vehicles on potholes and wasting time and money on detours from bridge closures.
The Legislature tasked the Mississippi Economic Council with studying the issue and making recommendations. The MEC is a pro-business organization made up of the conservative leaders of Mississippi’s leading companies, and it’s the same group that led the push for the 1987 gas tax increase.
The study concluded in 2015 that the state needed $375 million additional a year just to maintain its existing highways and bridges, much less build anything new. The fairest way to do that would be a 10 to 15 cent increase in the gas tax.
That’s an inherently fair tax because the users of the roads pay for them, even people driving through Mississippi who don’t pay other taxes here. And it’s partially free from political manipulation because the gas tax goes straight to the Mississippi Department of Transportation. It’s going to be spent on roads and bridges without the Legislature having a chance to get its hands on it to divert it to fill budget holes elsewhere.
But Bryant and legislative leaders mostly ignored the dire need to take action. Why? They were simply scared of the tea party voters who reject any tax increase, no matter how merited.
Then the feds started shutting down dilapidated bridges in 2018. That forced state leaders to do something, and their “solution” in a 2018 special session was to divert an anticipated $110 million from the internet sales tax and to start a lottery anticipated to generate some $80 million in profits. Being generous, that’s $200 million out of a $375 million need — and the amount needed is increasing exponentially because it costs more to fix roads the longer you let them decay.
All this time, Bryant has enjoyed near universal popularity and strong power over the state’s politics, which are completely controlled by his party. His support would have easily given Republican legislators, who know the need for a gas tax increase, the political cover they needed to get it done.
But Bryant chose the easy, and short-sighted, path instead.
• Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Contact him at (601) 736-2611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.