Riding the rural highways of Mississippi, it’s easy to see why so many citizens want taxes cut. Vistas of disrepair and deterioration overwhelm. Strapped folk in these areas see little benefit from state spending. To them, every precious dollar they send to state and local governments must seem to disappear down endless holes. They are beyond taxed enough already.
Now, these highways they depend on for work, church and groceries have begun to buckle and crack. Bad roads will worsen their plight unless and until money is spent to fix them. But there is not enough money for repairs, especially for poor, rural areas. And there won’t be without more tax revenues.
This infrastructure calamity has become a matter of great ponderation in Jackson.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told a Stennis Institute gathering last week the matter is one legislators can’t ignore, adding road and bridge repair is a “core function” of government. True, so long as pondering is different from ignoring.
You see, legislators have known about, and pondered, this problem for years. Back in 2009, their own PEER Committee told them the backlog for just bridge repairs had grown to $975 million. Then, in 2013, PEER told them the bridge backlog had jumped to $2.7 billion. In 2015, the Mississippi Economic Council told them nearly $6 billion was needed to fix both bridges and highways.
Naturally, each bigger number created a need for greater ponderation.
Today, money needed to fix roads and bridges is nearing $7 billion.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders have a self-made dilemma. Back in 2015, business leaders warned them bad roads would hurt the state economy and asked them to raise taxes. Legislative leaders promised to take care of the issue. Instead, they’ve pondered.
This past summer, legislative leaders listened to their chosen tax consultant tell them user taxes should be the primary means of funding government functions. They liked what they heard.
Well, the gas tax is the user tax Mississippi levies to pay for roads and bridges. It was last increased in 1987. For years now, it has provided too little money to cover both new construction and repairs. The easy and, according to the tax consultant, proper fix would be to increase the gas tax.
Anti-tax rural folks have a different thought. They want tax cuts, not tax increases, not even just a few cents per gallon of gas. They don’t get, or don’t care, that good roads are essential for a good economy.
Meanwhile, roads and bridges deteriorate more each year, putting everyone’s economic well-being at risk.
Impatient business leaders want legislative leaders to keep their promise. Republican legislators in control understand, but want to keep their jobs.
As drivers jerk and shudder down ever more rugged highways, they can rest assured of one thing. Mississippi’s legislative leaders, like Pinky and the Brain, will ponder this matter with great deliberation.
P.S. Reeves said possible help from Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan would now be included in their ponderation.
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.