JACKSON – House and Senate transportation leaders are working diligently in good faith to build support for additional revenue (some type of tax increase) for highway and road improvements throughout the state.
But there is a huge disconnect in their efforts because, thus far, their respective legislative bosses, Speaker Philip Gunn in the House and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate, have yet to embrace the tax increase proposition.
As a matter of fact, it is safe to assume that at this point, both Reeves and Gunn would say they are against raising anybody’s taxes, which is an oft-repeated mantra many politicians give when asked about increasing revenue.
Senate Highways & Transportation Chair Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, is currently chairing a special committee, comprised of business leaders, transportation experts and others, to look at the state’s numerous infrastructure needs and try to come up with a plan to pay for them.
Over in the House, Transportation Chair Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, tried unsuccessfully during the 2013 session to increase the state’s 18.4-cents per gallon gasoline tax to fund highway needs. Johnson, a bright, tenacious legislator, will more than likely try again in 2014.
Those who support raising revenue to meet those transportation needs say the key is to get the Mississippi business community on board with a tax increase proposal.
If the business community is on board, they reason it will be easier to get such an effort through a state Legislature where many members oppose raising taxes and others are scared of the political consequences of being for a tax increase.
The question is which will come first – the business community support or the support of the legislative leadership, namely Gunn and Reeves?
Supporters of a tax increase cite the historic 1987 Four-Lane Program, which raised the gasoline tax to the current 18.4 cents per gallon, as an example of what can be done with the strong backing of the business community.
But there are some distinct differences between now and 1987. For instance, legislative campaigns have become much more sophisticated and there are political consultants who are adept at exploiting every legislative vote – particularly a tax increase.
Plus, then-House Transportation Chair John David Pennebaker of New Albany and Vice Chair Billy McCoy of Rienzi were credited with helping build support for the 1987 program with a series of meetings across the state. Simmons is hoping to hold similar meetings, but will they, with all due respect, be taken seriously, if the legislative leaders are not on board with any tax increase?
Without the active support of the legislative leadership, it is hard to envision any tax increase going far in the legislative process.
And then there is the governor.
In 1987, the Four-Lane Program, including the tax increase, was passed over a gubernatorial veto. That means it had to receive the votes of two-thirds of the members of each chamber.
It is hard to imagine in today’s hyperpartisan environment two-thirds of the members in a Republican-controlled House and Senate voting to override a veto of fellow-Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
Most everyone agrees that more revenue is needed in the state for transportation needs.
According to one estimate, since 1987 maintenance costs for roadways have risen 128 percent while the revenue generated by the 18.4-cent per gallon tax on motor fuel has remained flat.
Cars are becoming much more energy efficient, meaning people are having to purchase less gasoline for their travels.
The staff of the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Committee concluded there is a “growing needs to maintain our state roads, but….with more efficient vehicles on the horizon, the motor fuel taxes we have relied upon to fund state programs and state aid projects in the past will not be reliable in the future.”
No doubt, good arguments for additional revenue for transportation needs are being made. But without the support of Bryant and the legislative leadership, all those arguments likely will result in little if any action.
At the very least, Johnson and Simmons face more obstacles than did their counterparts in 1987.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (601) 353-3119.