Thinking small on the gas tax

By TIM KALICH,

Delbert Hosemann, the odds-on-favorite to be Mississippi’s next lieutenant governor, has an idea that he thinks can be sold to the public and to lawmakers as a way to raise more money for the desperately needed repairs to the state’s roads and bridges.

Hosemann has floated the idea of a local option gas tax, earmarked for specific transportation projects at the local level.

He is still flushing out some of the details — and he acknowledged when he unveiled it earlier this month that the proposal is a “conversation starter” — but here are the broad strokes.

County boards of supervisors would vote whether to put the option of adding a local gas tax of 2 to 6 cents per gallon to a vote of the people in the November 2020 election. The referendum would specify the maintenance and repair projects to be funded by the tax, and the tax would expire once those projects were completed and paid for.

The counties would have to share the proceeds with the municipalities in their jurisdiction. The money could not be used for new construction, nor could it replace what local governments are already spending on repair and maintenance.

Hosemann says this funding mechanism would address where most of the needs are — on the local level. He cites as evidence the fact that of the 436 bridges now closed in Mississippi, only four are owned by the state.

That might be persuasive if you  stopped there, but you can’t stop there.

In 2015, the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, commissioned a study of the condition of the state’s roads and bridges. Yes, it found that local infrastructure is a mess, but it also found that the state transportation infrastructure is too.

Though certainly closed bridges are the biggest emergency, there are thousands of other bridges, including more than 900 state-owned ones, that will be in a similarly bad shape soon enough if they are allowed to deteriorate further. The study also found that of the nearly 38,000 miles of roads and highways needing work, almost two-thirds are state-owned.

Hosemann’s proposal won’t touch but a portion of the overall problem, which almost certainly has gotten worse in the four years since the MEC-sponsored study was done. And the  2018 legislation he and other Republicans tout, which will devote the still uncertain proceeds from an impending state lottery to road and bridge repair, is generally recognized as being totally inadequate.

Maybe Hosemann’s proposal is all that can get through a Legislature that is again expected to be dominated by GOP supermajorities. Republicans in this state — led by Gov. Phil Bryant and Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor aiming to replace him — have spent years successfully convincing the electorate that all state tax increases are bad, even when the math says otherwise, as it does on the fuel tax.

Mississippi’s tax on gasoline and diesel is 18.4 cents per gallon, and it’s been that way since 1987. If it were just keeping up with inflation, the tax today should be more than double that.

Also, for all the politicians’ claims that people can’t afford to pay more for gasoline, the fact is today’s gas prices are cheap, when adjusted for inflation. In 1932, during the Great Depression, gas ran 18 cents a gallon. In today’s dollars, that would equate to $3.23, about 75 cents more a gallon than Mississippi motorists are presently paying.

If you need more confirmation of the relatively inexpensive cost of gas, just look around most parking lots. Gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs easily outnumber sedans. These larger vehicles would not be the growth area if consumers struggled to fill their gas tanks.

Not only is Hosemann’s gas-tax idea too small, it also delegates too much. When Hosemann said, as he did in the press release announcing his gas-tax proposal, that “Mississippi should be run from the counties and not in the Capitol,” he raises the question of why we need him or anyone else in state government.

All government-funded projects are wasteful. That’s a given. But I have more faith in the ability of the Miss. Department of Transportation to get the job done at a close-to-reasonable cost than I do in boards of supervisors.

Hosemann said his proposal is a conversation starter. Fair enough. Let’s hope that between now and January, the conversation is steered toward thinking bigger.