Once the several-inch-thick coat of ice melts from the highways and roads of Mississippi, expect another hazard to take its place: potholes.

When water freezes and expands between the cracks of asphalt, the pressure breaks up the surface. Where potholes already exist, they will get larger. Where they don’t exist, new ones will form.

The situation is going to underline Mississippi’s longstanding neglect of road and bridge maintenance.

There are two efforts working at cross purposes in the Legislature to deal with this problem.

One would be the proverbial “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” shifting money the Mississippi Department of Transportation now receives from the state lottery and giving it instead to counties and cities for local roads and bridges. The other would ask Mississippi voters later this year to approve a substantial increase in the fuel tax to pay for 20 specific state highway repair projects.

Both local and state infrastructure in Mississippi is in a bad state. Unlike local governments, though, the Mississippi Department of Transportation has historically had only one main funding source: the tax collected at the pump on gasoline and diesel purchases. That stream of revenue has been inadequate for decades, largely because the Legislature has steadfastly refused to raise the tax.

Motorists today pay the same 18.4 cents per gallon to the state that they did in 1987, the last time the tax was adjusted. If lawmakers had just kept up with inflation, the tax today would be 43 cents per gallon.  

Three years ago, lawmakers addressed that neglect by specifying that the first $80 million a year raised from the newly created lottery would go to MDOT. It was far short of what’s needed — estimates are it would take $350 million to $400 million extra in highway spending a year to catch up — but it was a start. Now some in the Senate want to take even that away.

It’s a terrible idea and should be shelved. Local governments do have major road and bridge needs, but they received special consideration from the state during that same legislative session that created the lottery.

They were cut in for a 35% share of the state’s tax on internet sales, which is going to be steadily rising into the future. In addition, they always have the option to raise property taxes. Since city streets and county roads mostly benefit the residents who live there, these same residents have an obligation to help pay for taking care of them.

House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, meanwhile, may be onto something.

Lamar, a Republican from Senatobia, has authored a bill that would do two good things: immediately raise significant money for highway maintenance and repair, and put in place a mechanism to steadily increase funding for the long term.

His idea is to raise the tax on gasoline by 10 cents a gallon and by 14 cents on diesel, the proceeds of which would finance, probably over 20 years, the borrowing of $2.5 billion for road and bridge maintenance. Most of the proceeds would go to MDOT, but a $300 million slice would also be earmarked for counties and cities. In the meantime, starting in 2031, the fuel tax would also be adjusted annually to reflect the fact that the costs of road repair, like everything else, rise over time.

Lamar’s approach has two weaknesses. The inflation adjuster — no more than 1% a year — won’t keep up with inflation. And a basic function of government — keeping roads drivable — should not hinge on a popular vote.

But at least Lamar has put on the table more of a solution than others in his party have offered.

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