JACKSON, MISS– The Mississippi Economic Council’s Capitol Day brought together lawmakers, lobbyists, organization heads and the public to address some of the looming issues of the current legislative session.
Of the many aspects of the state to be addressed in the session, one that has come up time and time again has been whether or not there should be an increase in the state’ gas tax.
Mississippi currently taxes 18 cents on the gallon for both regular and diesel fuel. That rate has not been adjusted since 1987. Efforts to raise it in past legislative sessions have failed.
While lawmakers agree that Mississippi has a vast network of interstates, highways, and bridges, they also note that something has to be done about funding allotted for the upkeep of that network.
Governor Phil Bryant said there does need to be an evaluation, but it may not come this session.
“We need to look at what the President-elect is going to do,” said Governor Bryant. “Donald J. Trump has said throughout his entire campaign that he’s gonna have a major emphasis on infrastructure across the United States.”
Governor Bryant said this is not just a Mississippi problem.
“I know I’ve talked to other governors.. we’d like to know what that looks like,” said Governor Bryant. “Because if we pass an omnibus bill that is not in line with what the president is doing we may have to come back to adjust.”
With Donald Trump’s inauguration still two weeks away, it may be hard to determine what that plan may be during the legislative session.
“We’ve got a good, long year,” said Governor Bryant. “Donald Trump has a sense of urgency on this, we may know something by the end of the year.. and it would be easy to have a special session.”
Governor Bryant expressed a fear of what could happen if legislation were to be passed on the state level before anything were to happen federally.
“If the federal government says we’re going to add three or four cents (per gallon for tax) and then we add three or four cents,” said Governor Bryant. “Then I think of those who pull up to the pump and think ‘Gosh I’m barely making it have to put $70 in gas in my F-150.”
Blake Wilson, President and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said that the issue with the infrastructure funding in the state is two parts.
“First, not enough money was put in the fund (for infrastructure maintenance),” said Wilson. “And because we haven’t had any kind of increase in gas tax since 1987. We’re paying a lot for a jug of milk, a loaf of bread, but we’re riding on our roads for the exact same prices.”
Wilson added that there is a catch-22 involved with raising the gas tax. It needs to be raised, but no one wants higher taxes.
“I think it comes down to finding the right number,” Wilson said.
One number has been pitched. Democratic Senator Willie Simmons of Cleveland chairs the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, and has dropped a bill, which has not yet been assigned a number.
“The bill is do to deal with infrastructure, and trying to come up with some resources to take care of it,” said Sen. Simmons. “It’s a major problem.”
Sen. Simmons said the bill has a long way to go, but that he feels better that the bill could be passed.
“The Mississippi Economic Council, Joe Sanderson, and others are on board,” said Sen. Simmons. “Unless we feel like the community can be supportive, it will be difficult.”
The bill Sen. Simmons has discussed looks at various ways to raise the money for Mississippi’s infrastructure problems. His estimate was $350-$400 million dollars above existing contracts.
“We’re talking about taking it to 26, 27 cents,” said Sen. Simmons. “But we’re looking at indexing it.”
Sen. Simmons’ bill also suggests raising the hotel and tourism tax to benefit infrastructure, but there’s still more details to be hammered out.
“When you put forth a bill,” said Sen. Simmons. “It’s a work in progress.”
The senator said that the increase in hotel tax would be stacked upon the taxes the city may already hold for tourism.