Neighboring states facing same issues as Mississippi

By WYATT EMMERICH,

our neighboring states are dealing with many of the same issues that Mississippi is facing.

To the east, Alabama, with a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, just passed the first increase in the gas tax in 27 years. Support was bipartisan in the Alabama House of Representatives with only 18 of 77 Republicans voting no and only three of 28 Democrats voting no. The Alabama Senate passed the tax by a vote of 28 to 6.

The Alabama new gas tax added 10 cents to the existing 18 cents per gallon. Six cents of the total 10-cent tax started September 1. Then an additional two cents in 2020 and the final two cents in 2021.

The new tax is supposed to generate $320 million. Alabama cities and counties will get one-third of that money for local road and bridge repairs. Unlike Mississippi, many Alabama cities and counties have their own local fuel tax.

Alabama Gov. Kaye Ivy said, “Almost 30 years with no added investment to our infrastructure and drivers can certainly feel it. However, being content with the status quo is no longer acceptable. Alabama deserves better, and in the case of our infrastructure system, we are doing more.”

Both Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have said there is no support for a gas tax in Mississippi. Yet one state more than 85 percent of the Alabama legislators voted for the gas hike. That makes no sense.

Mississippi now has the fourth-lowest gas taxes and the absolute lowest gas prices in the nation. It is only one of three states that has not raised its gas taxes in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Economic Council, backed by detailed engineering studies from our state’s universities, has been clamoring for our state leaders to do something. They maintain a website called Roads Matter to generate public support.

The Roads Matter website claims Mississippians spend $530 per year due to flat tires, cracked wind shields and alignment problems. This compares to an extra $80 a year per vehicle if a gas tax is passed. The Roads Matter website also claims one-third of fatal accidents are caused by poorly maintained roads and that the gas tax would generate 7,000 new Mississippi jobs.

Those against the gas tax complain about waste at the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). Yet Mississippi ranks as the 10th most efficient state transportation department in the nation based on cost per mile of road.

Polls show Mississippians are solidly behind the gas tax. Democratic nominee for governor Jim Hood has expressed support of the gas tax in the past, but has done some waffling on the issue. Republican nominee Tate Reeves is absolutely against it.

Living in Jackson, I can attest to what happens when government doesn’t properly maintain its roads. I have spent thousands on flats, bent rims, alignments and worse. Looks like our Republican state leaders are on track to make the exact same mistakes as the Jackson Democrats at whom they love to point their fingers.

It’s been decades since Mississippi experienced a competitive general election for governor with a Democratic candidate capable of winning.

Our neighboring state to the west, Louisiana, can shed some insight into the possibility of that happening.

Four years ago, Louisiana state leadership was locked up by the Republican Party when Democrat John Bel Edwards shocked the state by winning the governorship. He had been the minority leader in the state House of Representatives before winning the state’s top office.

Edwards, a conservative Democrat, ran on a strong pro-life, pro-gun platform saying his state needs "a healthy dose of common sense and compassion for ordinary people.”

Louisiana is unusual because it has an open primary system in which all candidates from all parties run in the same primary race.

Edwards received 40 percent of the vote in the primary and won the general with 56 percent of the vote over Republican U. S. Senator David Vitter. Vitter hammered Edwards for supporting Obama and Clinton but it didn’t stick.

Edwards immediately issued an executive order to expand Medicaid. By the next year, the number of Louisiana individuals without health insurance was cut in half, 11.4 percent which was down from 22.7 percent. According to a study conducted by LSU's E.J. Ourso College of Business, the expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana has enhanced state revenues by an estimated $103.2 million and has created and support personal earnings of $1.118 billion across the state.

Upon assuming office, Edwards inherited a $2 billion deficit from his predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal. Stabilizing Louisiana's budget was a top priority for the Edwards administration. Edwards prides himself upon reversing the economic downfall he inherited, claiming the state under his governorship achieved record-high GDP, record-high personal income, low unemployment, and one of the highest economic growth rates in the country.

Just like Mississippi, Medicaid expansion has been a big issue in the neighboring state of Arkansas. In 2013, led by a Democratic governor, the Republican legislature created an innovative plan called Arkansas Works to expand Medicaid to 250,000 Arkansans. The plan is similar to a plan proposed by Mississippi hospitals called Mississippi Cares.

Dr. Joe Thompson was the Arkansas surgeon general at the time of expansion. He writes, “A 2015 Gallup report showed that since its Medicaid expansion program took effect in January 2014, Arkansas’ uninsured rate had been cut in half, dropping from 22.5 percent to 11.4 percent ― the biggest reduction in the nation. Arkansas went from being ranked 49th for its uninsured rate ― only Texas was worse ― to 20th. As of 2017, Arkansas’ uninsured rate was again 11.4 percent. Mississippi’s was 18.3 percent, and Texas’, still the worst, was 23.4 percent.

“The lower uninsured rate led to a 55 percent reduction in uncompensated-care losses at Arkansas hospitals. This has been especially important for rural hospitals, which treat many low-income patients.

Since January 2010, only one rural Arkansas hospital has closed for financial reasons. In the five neighboring states that have not expanded Medicaid, 47 rural hospitals have closed, including five in Mississippi, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Expanding Medicaid also has helped stabilize Arkansas’ health insurance market, improve competition and control premiums. Since 2014, no fewer than three and up to five insurers have offered plans through the Health Insurance Marketplace in each of the state’s counties.

Many Southern states have only one participating insurer in many of their counties — an exception being Louisiana, which expanded Medicaid in 2016. The competition encourages low rates: In 2014, 38 states had marketplace premiums lower than Arkansas; in 2018, only six states had lower premiums.

“Medicaid expansion has brought billions of new federal dollars into Arkansas’ economy: $1.7 billion between January 2014 and June 2015 alone, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Arkansas also is saving money because some individuals previously covered under traditional Medicaid, which in Arkansas is 30 percent state and 70 percent federally funded, are now covered under Medicaid expansion with enhanced federal funding. A legislative task force consultant estimated in 2016 that Medicaid expansion would save Arkansas $757 million between 2017 and 2021.

“Arkansas modified its program last year to include a much-debated work and community engagement requirement that currently is blocked by a federal judge’s order.

However that issue is ultimately resolved, it is clear from the examples of Arkansas and other states that Medicaid expansion is a triple win: a benefit to the working poor, hospitals and state economies.”

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