Congress last week kicked the can down the road on any long-term resolution on highway funding. They came up with a short-term fix good only through May of next year.
It wasn’t at all surprising, in light of the inability of Congress to craft any long-term solutions on the many critical issues facing the country. Why should highways be any different?
And speaking of the lack of political courage, few in public office in Mississippi are willing to level with taxpayers about what it will take to fix the state’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure, especially highways and bridges. We want to have good highways and safe bridges, but apparently our legislators don’t believe we’re willing to pay for them by raising a fuel tax that has been the same for 27 years and is wholly inadequate for today’s needs.
Northeast Mississippi’s four-lane highways are relatively new, mostly the product of the 1987 Highway Program that paid for their construction but provided no funding source for their maintenance. Highways in other parts of the state are deteriorating more noticeably, but our time will come before we know it.
Meanwhile, our public schools have been funded $1.5 billion less than state law requires over the last six fiscal years and universities and community colleges are still reeling from the cuts they’ve endured in recent years. State revenue collections are picking up, providing some prospect of shoring up educational budgets. But next year’s an election year, and there’s already talk about a tax cut. Given our current political environment, you can probably bank on it.
Politicians always have been prone to place political expediency over leadership and hard choices. Yet the divide seems greater today than ever.
The paralysis gripping the federal government on critical issues like the deficit and national debt as well as the long-term viability of beloved middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare is fueled heavily by the distressingly high level of partisan polarization. But part of it is just plain political self-preservation on everybody’s part.
Our leaders can’t bring themselves to ask us to do something for our country – a modest adjustment in the Social Security retirement age, a slight increase in the upper-end payroll tax, for example – to keep those benefits viable down the road. They think – they know – we’ll get mad at them about it and take it out on them at the polls.
Nor can members of Congress or the Mississippi Legislature muster the courage to tell us that if we want highways built and maintained and bridges kept safe, somebody has to pay for it, and why shouldn’t it be the people who use them?
Our political leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. They respond to what they think their constituents are thinking.
The loudest ones are the ones they hear first – those who say never raise my taxes any time, any place for any reason, or that recoil at the slightest adjustment to any benefit they receive from the government. But generally speaking, political leaders most revered in history have been those who stepped out to lead – even sometimes where people didn’t think they wanted to go – rather than wait to see which way the wind’s blowing. Consider that one of the most famous political speech lines of all time is, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
We have many problems, and few solutions on the table. Political leaders instead are scrambling to ask as little of us as possible, or to provide an election-year present instead of a plan to properly fund the essential functions of government like education and transportation so critical to our state’s future
Where are the leaders history will remember?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.