/After MDOT audit comes back clean, leaders renew push for more infrastructure funding

After MDOT audit comes back clean, leaders renew push for more infrastructure funding

The audit found that MDOT had failed to manage its vehicle fleet properly and schedule projects in a way that was consistent with industry standards. However, it recommended that MDOT do so. The audit was overseen by the state auditor, which was mandated by legislation in 2018 and conducted nationally. This audit is the latest in a series of legislative oversights and internal audits that MDOT has conducted over the last 10 years. These audits have shown MDOT to be financially sound. Until questions about misspends were answered, legislators have long refused to fund the department’s long-term future. Dick Hall, former Transportation Commissioner, said Monday that “are we ever going to be able to have the vision and embark on something so politically terrifying as planning the future?” Monday’s press corps luncheon was hosted by the Stennis Institute, Mississippi State University. Hall made the case for an increase to the state’s fuel taxes. The tax has not been raised since 1987. Mississippi is one of only two states that haven’t raised it since then. After presenting the breakdown of costs to luncheon attendees, Hall stated that despite the absence of new revenue generation over the past 30 years the cost of infrastructure building material has increased 600%. Hall stated that the governor and many of these legislators (that passed recent gas tax increases) were Republicans. “I was told that I was a Republican elected official for longer periods of time than any other person in Mississippi. I would like to point out that “no new taxes” is not a solution but a slogan. As a Republican, it’s my preference for a solution. The extent of the problems as defined by MDOT officials is sobering. MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath stated that only 116 miles of 1,798 interstate highways need to be repaired each year; 500 miles of four-lane roads are only being repaired every other year. She said that only 1,000 miles of the 7,534 miles in two-lane highways in the State are maintained annually. Legislative leaders pointed out the possibility of MDOT misspend as a reason to delay sweeping funding reforms. They have tightened their scrutiny of the department. The fall 2016 was the first time that then-Lt. Governor. In the fall of 2016, Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) hosted a series legislative hearings that examined MDOT’s spending. They pointedly interrogated MDOT officials about agency travel, its vehicle fleet size and why certain projects were not completed. Reeves introduced a comprehensive infrastructure funding reform bill during the 2018 legislative session that would have stripped MDOT of its spending authority of hundreds and millions of dollars each year. This proposal caused a furious debate among rank-and-file members of both the Senate, House, and Senate. MDOT has been the target of numerous budget cuts over recent years. This has made it difficult for the agency to concentrate on maintenance, and not new construction. MDOT leaders stated that they are unable to maintain the state’s highway system with current funding levels. Conservative estimates suggest that the department would need between $300 million and 400 million more per year. An advocacy group called Fix Mississippi Roads called for lawmakers to adopt a long-term, comprehensive, and sustainable funding solution. Legislators passed an infrastructure funding package during a 2018 special session. MDOT will now receive an estimated $80 million per year from the state lottery over nine years, and $3 million annually from sports betting revenue over nine years. MDOT also received approximately $37 million in one time bond funds from this package. Despite being repeatedly asked for more money, many top elected officials recently expressed an interest in increasing the gasoline tax. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann ran in 2019 for the possibility. He stated in December 2019 that the local gas tax would be increased to allow counties to decide whether to raise the tax. Gunn supported similar proposals in the past. A rise in the state gasoline tax has not been supported by either official. Reeves is, however, still strongly opposed to any increase of the fuel tax, state or local, going so far as to issue a warning to legislators on statewide conservative radio less that a month before 2020 legislative session started. Although several legislators and advocacy groups have pushed for an increase in the gasoline tax, not all are sold. Because of the potential impact on Mississippians, key legislative Democrats, including Robert Johnson (D-Natchez), House minority leader, oppose an increase to the tax. Democrats propose to reverse large corporate tax cuts, which have saved a lot of money for companies out-of-state and have reduced tax revenue collection. “The first step to dealing with the budget and infrastructure problems is to freeze the reckless tax cuts that were passed by Republicans in the Legislature,” Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson) said last year.