There will be a lot of changes, starting next week, coming to the Mississippi Capitol. Among them will be a new governor, a new lieutenant governor and several new committee chairs.
But one thing that appears unlikely to change is the stubborn resistance to raising Mississippi’s insufficient fuel tax so as to meaningfully address the long-deferred maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges.
Tate Reeves, as lieutenant governor and then as the successful candidate for governor, has shown no sign that he is budging in his opposition. And now Delbert Hosemann, the incoming lieutenant governor, is backing away from his more modest plan to give cities and counties the option to raise the tax for infrastructure repair if voters agree.
Hosemann said recently he doesn’t know that his plan will even be necessary, considering the “tremendous infusion” of money for roads and bridges coming from measures lawmakers enacted during a 2018 special session, parroting a line often used by Reeves during the gubernatorial campaign this year.
That “tremendous infusion” — which included $250 million in onetime borrowing for emergency projects and up to $80 million a year from the new state lottery — is inadequate, though, to address the hundreds of deficient bridges and the tens of thousands of miles of crumbling roads in the state. It’s been estimated that it will take something like $400 million a year indefinitely in extra road and bridge funding to catch up on the decades of neglect.
The special session in 2018 made only a modest dent into the problem.
The only way to quickly and rationally come up with the kind of money needed is by raising the fuel tax, which hasn’t been adjusted since 1987. Doing so would put the burden of repairs on those who should be paying for them — the users of the roads and bridges. It would also spread the cost, much better than a lottery will, to individuals from other states, who it is estimated pay roughly a third of the fuel tax in their travels through Mississippi.
A few of those in new state government jobs, such as incoming Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons, will continue to make this sensible argument. But Simmons, a Democrat, will be ignored by Reeves and the Republican leadership on this point, just as Simmons’ GOP predecessor, Dick Hall, was ignored.
Reeves, and departing Gov. Phil Bryant before him, made the calculation years ago that leaving the fuel tax unchanged is good politics, even if it’s bad public policy. It looks as if Hosemann unfortunately may have decided to follow this same narrow-minded path.
True leadership would be trying to educate the public as to why a fuel tax that has lost more than half of its buying power since it was last changed needs updating. It would be marshaling the votes to get an increase through the Legislature and providing cover for nervous members.
Such leadership, at least on this issue, sadly continues to be in short supply.