Legislators: Gas tax hike would need business support

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislators say the business community must champion the need for a tax increase to improve the state’s transportation system if the effort is to be successful.
“I don’t see the urgency coming out of the business community” for a tax increase, said House Transportation Committee Chair Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who held a hearing on the issue Tuesday.
Johnson said there is a need to recreate the dynamics of 1987 where the political leadership and business community joined forces to increase the tax on motor fuel to fund a massive four-lane highway construction project.
“We don’t see being able to do that without you,” Johnson said to Blake Wilson, chief executive officer of the Mississippi Economic Council. “We need leadership in the business community.”
Committees in both legislative chambers have now held hearings on the issue. The Senate Transportation Committee held a similar hearing last week.
Wilson said MEC is undertaking a year-long study of the state’s infrastructure needs. While stopping short of endorsing a tax increase, Wilson said his organization would not undertake an expensive study unless there is a belief in the business community that improvements need to be made.
Republican Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall has been one of the most vocal advocates of increasing the tax on gasoline to help fund construction projects.
Hall said the 18.4-cent tax on a gallon of gasoline has less than half the purchasing power it had in 1987 when it was enacted while at the same time highway construction costs have gone up more than 300 percent.
“What other group is still going by the same budget it had in 1987?” asked Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association.
Pepper said the Legislature also needs to deal with the issue of vehicles being fueled by alternative energy sources, such as natural gas or electricity.
He said under current state law, they “are riding for free” on the state’s highways.
Legislators from Northeast Mississippi who attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Capitol did not come close to endorsing a tax increase.
“I’m listening,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.
Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen, also said he is listening, but expressed concerns that gas prices already place a financial burden on working families.
“I am willing to listen to every option, but I am certainly not for raising anybody’s taxes,” said Rep. Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville. “There are other options.”
When asked about those options, he said he was still researching them.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com