Legislature too chicken to raise gas tax

Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature are so determined to avoid raising taxes for highway maintenance that they’re willing to give up some of their cherished authority.

The easy and obvious solution to the highway funding problem — brought on by higher construction costs and declining revenue due to more fuel-efficient vehicles — is to raise the state gasoline tax. Mississippi has taxed fuel sales at 18.4 cents per gallon for the past 30 years, and the money the tax brings in today isn’t keeping up with the state’s highway needs.

Of course, nobody likes higher taxes. But leaving things as they are will lead to a slowly deteriorating highway network, one which the state invested billions to build. As groups like the Mississippi Economic Council have noted, this would harm the state economy — which can hardly be the goal of legislative leaders.

It may be that Republicans in the Legislature have signed one of those documents in which they promise never to vote for a tax increase. Perhaps that’s why House Speaker Philip Gunn and other lawmakers released a list of proposals to pay for improved highways and bridges that includes everything but a higher fuel tax.

The most comical idea is to allow cities and counties to hold referendums to see which voters would raise fuel taxes in their areas.

Municipal officials are among those rolling their eyes at that one. For several years a number of cities, McComb among them, have asked Republican lawmakers for permission to increase the sales tax in their town to pay for specific projects such as street paving.

The cities have been willing to hold a referendum to get voter approval, but the anti-tax legislative majority is relentlessly opposed. The only local-option taxes it has been willing to consider are those on motel rooms.

Fair enough. But now they want to let each city or county vote on fuel taxes? This is so ridiculous that it seems like an idea intentionally set up to fail.

Why would any set of voters in one city or county approve a fuel tax increase when they know very well that voters a few miles away might reject it? Where’s the fairness in that?

There are all sorts of highway funding ideas. Gov. Phil Bryant thinks a state lottery would bring in money to help. The House wanted to put revenue from online sales taxes into highways, but Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves killed the plan during this year’s legislative session. The House also wants the state to borrow $50 million to help cities and counties with bridge replacement costs.

This is too much bending and twisting. If lawmakers continue like that, they’ll wind up looking like Gumby toys.

Over the past 30 years, Mississippi spent a lot of money to build an excellent system of roads — a system that extends to every single county in the state.

This investment has maintenance costs, and the people of the state ought to share the expense fairly. At the same time, the Legislature ought to do its job and make a tax decision instead of pawning it off on the public.

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