Dick Hall, who is retiring from the Mississippi Highway Commission, recently made a strong case to the Jackson Rotary Club for increasing Mississippi’s fuel tax. Here are excerpts from his remarks:
Since announcing that I would not be running for re-election, I have been asked many times, “Where are you going, what are you going to do when you are retired?”
My answer has been: “I don’t know. The Lord has not yet told me, but being a predestined Presbyterian, I know there is a plan.”
As I stand here today, I wish I was that confident of the future of the state of Mississippi. In my 44 years of public service, I don’t recall a time when I have been so concerned with our lack of a solid plan for our economic future.
Since the Great Recession in 2009, Mississippi’s GDP has grown just 2.2% compared to a national GDP growth of over 22.8% and Alabama 10.6%, Arkansas 13.1% and Tennessee 22.8%.
Personal income grew 9.4% in Mississippi between 2009 and 2018. The U.S. grew 24.6%, Alabama 13.9%, Arkansas 21.5% and Tennessee 25.6%.
You are told that unemployment is at a record low, but you are not told that Mississippi employers had fewer workers on their payrolls in September 2017 than in February 2008.
So many of the really qualified have left. We are leading the nation in the loss of the millennial population. Between 2006 and 2015, Mississippi had the highest out-migration rates in the South for people younger than 40 with a college degree.
Nearly 10,000 more American-born people left the state than moved here from July 2015 to July 2016. If Mississippi had been an average Southern state, we would have added 10,000 people from other states.
What does this have to do with our lack of a plan for an up-to-date intermodal system of transportation? Absolutely everything. As the late congressman Jamie Whitten said, “If we allow our roads to deteriorate, our bridges to dilapidate and our rivers and harbors to silt, we can have all the money in the world and still be bankrupt.”
With the exception of two actions by the Mississippi legislature, very little has been done to move Mississippi off of the bottom.
One was the authorization of public kindergartens under the leadership of Gov. William Winter in 1982; the other was the four-lane highway program created over the veto of Gov. Bill Allain in 1987. (The veto override was a one-vote margin.)
That one action 32 years ago moved Mississippi’s highway system from one of the worst in our nation to the sixth best and number one in the Mid-South. That is when the state Legislature last adjusted our state fuel tax — an action that was the most significant economic development event in the state in the last half century.
Without that, there would be no Toyota, no Nissan, or hundreds of other businesses that expanded within our borders. It is time to do it again!
When the fuel tax was last adjusted 32 years ago, most of us serving in the Legislature back then made a serious mistake. We failed to provide for the maintenance of what we were building when we set the fuel charge at a flat 18.4 cents per gallon.
This has resulted in our situation of attempting to maintain a $4 billion investment where the cost of necessary materials such as concrete, asphalt, and structural steel have increased over 500% with a revenue base set 1987 dollars. You tell me a business you can successfully run with an expense to revenue ratio such as that.
This is an election year, a very important election year. You need to be certain that the individual you vote for at the county level and the state level understands the absolute need for a dependable system of roads and bridges.
If he or she doesn’t clearly promise you that, then find someone who will. The safety of your family and the size of your pocketbook depend on it.