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Mississippi needs to learn from neighbors

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

To the east, Alabama, with a Republican legislature and 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 Senate passed the tax 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 Sept. 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.

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 over, 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 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. 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.”

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.

Edwards prides himself upon reversing the $2 billion 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, “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 … 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.”

 

Wyatt Emmerich is a Mississippi columnist and publisher.