Special session to fix our roads just a Band-Aid

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, came to our Rotary meeting prepared.

Pepper projected on to a screen photo after photo of the splintered wooden underbellies of dozens of decaying bridges – bridges that thousands of Mississippians have been driving over every day for years.

The images were shocking. Very few of us ever take the time to look under the bridges we trust to hold up our vehicles. If we did, maybe we would put more political pressure on our state legislators.

Some pilings were completely rotted away. Others were splintered beyond belief. Concrete was cracked with exposed rebar. Makeshift 55-gallon drums were looped around the bases of some pilings and then filled with concrete in an effort to shore them up. You just couldn’t believe it.

Pepper had a delicate task. He has to lobby the legislature on behalf of his road builders. He didn’t want to be ungrateful for the extra money the legislature just allocated in the special session. But he made it clear it wasn’t even close to being enough.

It is really quite simple. Thirty-five years ago we began taxing gas 18 cents a gallon to maintain our roads. But the legislature never provided for the tax to be adjusted for inflation. Now, 35 years later, our roads and bridges are crumbling, the bill is astronomical and the legislature doesn’t have the will to add an inflation-adjusted 18-cents-per-gallon tax to deal with the problem.

Pepper put it this way: “I’m gonna talk to you about your house. When you start seeing shingles coming off your roof, like I had back in the spring, you better get up there and put the shingles back on. Because if you don’t, that will lead to your deck rotting. And if you allow your deck to rot, your whole roof rots. Then you have to get a new roof. Or if you totally ignore your roof, then what goes on underneath? And that’s what’s going on. We have failed to properly maintain our roads and bridges, so now we are in to reconstruction, which can be triple or quadruple the cost.”

We have more than 400 bridges that are now closed, causing thousands of Mississippians to reroute, wasting valuable time. If the feds hadn’t forced our governor to close those bridges, we would have had no special session at all.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) needs about $400 to $600 million a year extra to properly maintain the roads. Study after study has been done that confirms this. Nobody has ever put forth an alternative study to dispute it.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is fond of saying MDOT needs to be more efficient. Indeed, all government bureaucracies are inefficient, but so what? If we wait until we solve the problem of government inefficiency before we begin maintaining our roads, we will all end up driving on dirt.

The special session allocated an anticipated $110 million of Internet sales tax, but nearly half that money will go to cities and counties for their roads and bridges. The Internet money, if it does come in, will just be replacing retail sales tax money lost to the Internet. There is no net increase. It doesn’t change MDOT’s maintenance shortfall for state roads.

Then there is the lottery, which will be run by a private corporation whose entire board will be appointed by the governor. Talk about potential for corruption. Imagine an army of politically connected consultants, engineers and PR mavens getting their hands on that money before it ever gets to the MDOT. At most, MDOT might get $30 to $50 million if it doesn’t get diverted to another agency first.

 

Lotteries were a popular way of funding schools and government projects 120 years ago until rampant corruption led every state and Congress to ban them. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In essence, lotteries are a numbers racket targeting the most vulnerable members of society. I guarantee young children will go without necessities while Mom or Dad buy a lottery ticket in the hopes of getting rich. There’s a reason churches opposed the lottery. The legislature ignored them.

I realize most other states have a lottery. I am reminded of when I used that logic on my mother as a child. Her response: “If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

The legislative leaders claim they don’t have the votes to pass a gas tax, yet numerous polls have shown voters are willing to pay a higher gas tax to maintain our roads.

Thirty-five states have recently increased gas taxes to fund maintenance. Mississippi has the second lowest gas prices in the nation, after Alabama. If we doubled the state gas tax from 18 cents to 36 cents, it would cost $100 per Mississippian per year, catch the tax up with inflation, properly fund state road maintenance and still leave Mississippi with the eighth-lowest gas prices in the nation.

I think Republican politicians are more concerned with their future political prospects than properly maintaining our state’s infrastructure. They are terrified of future political opponents running ads claiming they raised gas prices.

This is a gross underestimation of the intelligence of Mississippi voters. We know what a tire costs, what a new front end alignment costs, what shocks cost. One bent rim can cost $1,000. Just ask the people who drive on the streets in Jackson. They voted overwhelmingly to pay more taxes for better roads. They did it to save money, not waste it.

Part of the problem is our lack of political competition. Now that the Republicans are entrenched, they can screw up relentlessly without any repercussions. Their typical response is, “So what are you going to do? Vote for the party of Nancy Pelosi?” End of discussion. The bad government continues.

This is the problem with the two party system in Mississippi. One party gets entrenched. Factionalism prevails. Competition declines. Bad government and corruption thrive.

George Washington saw the writing on the wall 240 years ago and warned the nation of the danger of political parties in his farewell address. His foresight was uncanny.

My job is to tell the truth and expose bad government. The special session was a scam, just like the new lottery it created. This problem won’t go away. It will just get worse until we finally do what we should have done in the first place: Adjust the gas tax for 35 years of inflation.