Mississippi road money push hits pothole: GOP tax opposition

Published 1:47 pm Thursday, December 29, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A year after an effort to increase gasoline and diesel taxes to spend more on transportation stalled out, Mississippi legislative leaders say chances of action don’t look better in 2017.

Any tax increase takes a three-fifths majority. Although the GOP holds that margin in both the House and Senate, some Republicans are flatly against raising any taxes.

“People are concerned about having safe roads and bridges for sure,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall. “But, but when you ask them are you willing to pay more … they feel like they’ve been taxed enough.”

Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce, advocates an additional $375 million a year for highways and bridges, saying most money should come from higher fuel taxes or taxes on vehicle licenses. Of that, $300 million would go to the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The remaining $75 million would be divided among cities and counties. The department has said it needs even more — $526 million a year — just to prevent further deterioration.

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Joe Frank Sanderson Jr., chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms, is leading the MEC effort. He said his Laurel-based poultry company has 200 trucks that deliver feed to farms or bring chickens to processing plants.

“My trucks run 80,000 pounds and they run 20 hours a day,” Sanderson said. “When I have to dodge a bridge … that’s more time and more fuel.”

But many lawmakers in 2016 didn’t believe roads were so bad, or that transportation officials were spending efficiently. In response, House Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, led tours for lawmakers over the summer, crawling under bridges. MEC has continued to push, and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors held regional meetings to argue for more money.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Road Builders, said what’s missing is advocacy by Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or House Speaker Philip Gunn. Those Republicans aren’t getting out in front, though.

“You get differing opinions on how great that need is,” said Gunn, of Clinton. “But, clearly, there are roads and bridges that are being represented to us as being in states of disrepair, and we’re going to continue to try to look at that.”

In 2016, senators passed a bill that could have later been amended to allow tax increases, but it died in the House. Reeves said the “typical approach” would be for the Senate to await House action in 2017.

Some are already rallying opposition.

The Mississippi chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group bankrolled partly by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, encourages supporters to email lawmakers a message stating in part: “Mississippi families cannot afford ANY new taxes. Not at the gas pump. Not in new hidden fees. Not one more cent.”

Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, writes on his blog that he’s only willing to consider a gas tax increase if other taxes decrease by the same amount. Such a swap was discussed last year, but lawmakers ultimately voted to phase out $415 million in taxes over 12 years without raising any levies. Some Democrats have proposed reversing those cuts to raise money for transportation, a move unlikely to be popular among Republicans.

“We gave away $400 million on a franchise tax to people who don’t pay any other tax,” said Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, saying he opposes tax increases on everyday drivers while businesses pay less.