The future of Mississippi’s infrastructure remains a question mark, but leaders are continuing the conversation.
Earlier this week, Governor Bryant declared a state of emergency and shut down over 100 bridges across the state that failed to meet federal and state regulations.
Yesterday, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn proposed a bill which would fund roads and bridges through the use of a “tax swap”. The swap would eliminate the 4% tax income bracket and replace it with an 8 cent gas tax increase over a 4-year phase-in period. The tax currently sits at 18 cents per gallon, and that would increase by 2 cents each year, over the next four years. During that same time period, the 4% income tax would decrease by 1% each year.
Gunn says this would result in no net tax increases, and that the “use tax” is a better source of funding because it comes from those who use Mississippi roadways.
According to Gunn, use-taxes currently generate $315 million in the state, and about 1/3 of those funds would be diverted to infrastructure funding. Gunn noted that the funds would be disturbed as follows: $47 million to cities, $47 million to counties and $16 million to the Local System Bridge Program. The bill would provide $175 million for a “continuous stream of money” at full phase-in, according to Gunn.
“We think this is a solution, we think this is a great policy solution to solving our road and bridge issue. It takes money from existing dollars there is no tax increase here,” Gunn said.
While no negotiations have taken place, the current bill does not have the support of Lt. Governor Tate Reeves. In a statement, Reeves says that he is against raising the gas tax.
“I am a Republican. I am a conservative. I am against raising gas taxes. The Senate passed a comprehensive $1 billion plan without raising anybody’s taxes to address Mississippi’s infrastructure needs, and we look forward to working with the House and Gov. Bryant to address road and bridge maintenance.”
The $1 billion plan referenced by Reeves was titled the BRIDGE act, which aimed to fund Mississippi’s infrastructure without raising any taxes. Among other reasons, the bill did not make it through because it asked cities and counties to match state funds, which Gunn said was not a viable option. So, lawmakers adjourned and the session ended without a comprehensive infrastructure plan, but could they be called back? Governor Bryant says that’s not likely if Gunn and Reeves remain far apart on their views on how to progress.
“If we reach an agreement between the House and the Senate, then we’ll call them back,” Governor Bryant said. “If not, if what I see now is reality, and there’s such a difference between the House and Senate that there’s no way to reach an agreement, then we won’t have a special session. We’ll simply wait until next year until when we can begin the process again.”
As for the Governor’s view on the “tax swap”, he is unsure if the swap could be one that does not raise taxes on Mississippians.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes, I get that, but at least you need to have the freedom to sit down and talk about a tax swap. So, are we going to cut the taxes for the working people, the people who are out there pulling the wagon, and say that people who are using this product may have to pay more so the working people of the state of Mississippi aren’t supplementing that? I am willing to have that conversation,” the Governor said with a caveat. “Now, I would probably have to have a lot of encouragement to make me believe that this would be a fair, equitable swap.”
In the meantime, the legislature did place $50 million into a bond package for the maintenance of roads and bridges which will be available on July 1st.
While there is disagreement, Gunn says that he and other leaders do want to get this issue squared away as soon as possible.
“It’s our intent to get this done sooner rather than later. The Governor wants to do that, the Lt. Governor wants to do that, and I want to that,” Gunn said. “As soon as we can get some of those details ironed out, I think we’ll move on it.”
As lawmakers debate the viability of a tax swap, another option for infrastructure funding is a potential lottery in Mississippi, which the Governor said could be a topic for conversation during a potential special session. Governor Bryant said that there is a “majority of Mississippians that would want it” and that he would be willing to put it on a ballot.
“That’s $85 million that we could put into infrastructure each and every year that would not be a tax increase, so that needs to be a real discussion,” Governor Bryant said.
Gunn said that he would not vote for a lottery, but he would not stand in the way of one. He did say that a lottery bill would most likely not work inside of road bill because of the number of Republicans that would not support the lottery.
“I don’t want the road bill to die because the lottery is in there. I think the lottery would have to be a separate, stand-alone bill,” Gunn said.
The Speaker also said that the lottery would not be a quick fix because it could be two to three years away from implementation.
Also not a quick fix; the bridges closed by Governor Bryant earlier this week will remain closed until they are in compliance with federal and state laws, regulations and standards.
A full list of the closed bridges has been made available by the Office of State Aid Road Construction. To view the list – click here.