BILL CRAWFORD: Public infrastructure needs state support

By Bill Crawford

Roads, bridges, streets, and water, wastewater, and sewer facilities comprise the “public infrastructure” that counties and cities fund and maintain and upon which daily commerce and our standard of living depend.
In theory.
In reality, counties and cities rely on state and federal funds to supplement local funds…and that’s seldom enough to keep things well maintained.
“The nation’s infrastructure policy is at a crossroads, caught between rising demands and outdated programs to address them,” says a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure are in need of extensive repair. One-quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete.”
That was written nearly a decade ago. Not much happened in response, as wars, disasters, and economic collapse demanded the nation’s attention and resources.
But, the problem has not disappeared and the solution, if there is one, has been shifted out of the federal pocket. Budget cuts, the Sequester, and projected cuts mean fewer federal dollars for infrastructure projects.
Since 2010, the federally-funded, state-administered Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program has been cut 25%. In Mississippi, the CDBG program is the major funding source for infrastructure projects and industrial site development.
The federal portion of Mississippi’s State Aid Road Program has been cut 22%. While state special funds have been used to make up some of the difference, counties have serious needs for additional road and bridge funds.
With the feds cutting back, what will states do in response?
Mississippi has long depended on the federal pocket for infrastructure funding. While other states regularly utilize general funds for significant infrastructure funding, Mississippi does not. If the Legislature does not pick up the federal slack, though, that entire burden for infrastructure maintenance and improvements will shift to local officials.
“Local governments are strapped,” Steve Davis, director of governmental affairs for the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, told The Associated Press. “Everybody is looking for alternative ways to provide services, and no one wants to raise taxes.”
The prospects for legislative relief appear dim. Despite improving tax collections – House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson thinks the state could end the year with a $300 million surplus – infrastructure needs do not capture the spotlight like education and health care, which will get first dibs on extra money. Then, there is the recent declaration of House Speaker Philip Gunn: “I do not support the expansion of government in any fashion.” Presumably a new program to fund infrastructure projects would be such an expansion.
“We the people” depend on local, state, and federal officials to maintain and improve the public infrastructure that sustains our quality of life and supports our livelihoods. State officials should make it more of a priority… certainly more than millions in gratuitous tax credits.
BILL CRAWFORD (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.