Low gas prices opportunity to fund roads

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Gas prices below $2 a gallon give Mississippi legislators cover to do something they’ve been dragging their feet on for half a decade: Raising the state’s gas tax to a level that will sustain the state’s highways and bridges.

A 10-cent or 15-cent hike is more palatable when prices are low, and after about a week of the initial shock of prices jumping, everyone will forget about the increase and move on with their lives.

However, not much has come out of Jackson so far about a potential gas tax increase during the annual three-month session that begins Tuesday. The old wisdom is that the Legislature is loathe to do much controversial in an election year. Yet history shows that same body last raised the gas tax in 1987, which was an election year just like 2019. There were just enough votes to overcome a veto, and it’s noteworthy that not one of the legislators who approved the gas tax increase lost 32 years ago.

The gas tax has not changed from that 18.4 cents per gallon since then, yet its purchasing power has greatly decreased because of inflation and improved mileage.

The patch that the Legislature did during its 2018 special session is simply not enough to fix the problem. That included infrastructure money from a lottery, once it gets started, and diverting 30 percent of the new internet sales tax to cities and counties for infrastructure.

However, those stopgap measures are nowhere near enough to maintain Mississippi’s existing highways, much less build new ones. We suppose state officials are hoping more and more people will keep leaving the state for more prosperous areas, thus relieving them of the necessity of building new roads and bridges.

The gas tax is just about the fairest tax there is: The users of the roads are the ones who pay for it, even if they don’t live in Mississippi, and the money goes straight to roads without any political influence in the legislature. Each of us relies on highways to live and work, and thus each should pay a fair share of keeping them up.

Because of the previous gas tax increase in 1987, Mississippi has a great system of four-lane highways. It would be foolish to let them disintegrate after investing so much in them, like a driver who tries to save money by not changing the oil in his new car.

Mississippi voters are not dumb; they realize the need for investing in infrastructure and the fairness of the gas tax as a way to do that. Even Ronald Reagan, the hero of modern conservatism, championed a federal gas tax hike when he was president.

It’s time for our elected leaders to position our state to secure its investments and prepare for future growth.

If all of these arguments sound familiar, it’s because we’ve been making them for more than five years now. Yet the problem has not been fixed, and our state’s roads continue to decline, which will make the eventual repair more expensive with every year that passes. Now is the time to act.

Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of the Columbian-Progress in Columbia, Mississippi.