- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s state chamber of commerce said Friday that the state needs to raise another $375 million a year in taxes to fix decaying bridges and roads, pledging to throw its political support behind a campaign to boost funding.

In a report, the Mississippi Economic Council calls for the state Department of Transportation to receive another $300 million a year, while cities and counties would split $75 million. MEC leaders admit the money isn’t enough to meet all the state’s needs - transportation officials routinely cite an estimate of $400 million a year more for state roads and bridges alone. But the report says the money would be enough to take care of the most critical needs.

“It’s not the perfect number- there are other needs - but it’s what we feel can be afforded,” council President Blake Wilson said.

The state’s Republican political leadership reacted cautiously to the report. In a statement, Gov. Phil Bryant said he wanted to work with the council but also said that “any tax increase must be offset by corresponding tax cuts.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who said before the election that he agreed government should spend more money on transportation and that he was willing to discuss a “user fee” of a higher gas tax, said he planned to review the report but offered no opinion on its call for higher taxes.

House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton declined to comment.

Joe Sanderson Jr., who heads the poultry company that bears his name and led the study, suggested at a news conference Friday that it might be a good idea to raise taxes for transportation at the same time that officials were cutting the state’s personal income tax and corporate franchise tax, with the tax cuts possibly outweighing the increase.

The report doesn’t call for one particular funding method but suggests that lawmakers consider higher fuel taxes, license plate fees, rental car taxes or general sales taxes.

The authors say $375 million would be to replace 562 deficient state bridges, including every state bridge with timber underpinnings and 138 where deterioration means the department has posted a weight limit lower than the design capacity. They also say it would be enough to repave many deteriorating roads.

Overall accumulated needs top $6 billion, including local bridge replacement and repairing county and city roads in very poor condition.

The council pledges that it’s going to create a lobbying campaign that it calls Excelerate Mississippi to push for action.

The report said increasing funding by $375 million would cost the average driver 37 cents a day, an amount equal to $135 annually. But the council said its projections show that benefits from reduced drive time and wear-and-tear would produce a larger economic benefit, equal to $1.45 per driver per day, or about $530 a year.

Business support was key to the 1987 highway program that crisscrossed Mississippi with four-lane highways. Lawmakers raised the gasoline tax to 18.4 cents per gallon then, a level it’s been stuck at despite steady erosion to inflation. But business opposition helped torpedo a 2013 proposal to raise a mix of taxes to increase transportation spending by $600 million or more.

“As I drive across our state, today, I see firsthand that we are on the verge of losing our edge,” Sanderson said. “The massive investment that was made in our state’s transportation system will be lost. That is why it is so important that we work together to preserve this asset that so many leaders fought so hard to build”

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Online: Mississippi Economic Council report: http://www.exceleratems.com/

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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