By Laurence Hilliard

Kemper County Messenger

JACKSON – Legislation to increase the state gasoline tax by 3 cents a gallon to fund infrastructure needs – highways and bridges – will be introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives. The proposal would also reduce income taxes.

At a legislative breakfast last week hosted by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), House Transportation Committee chairman Charles Busby, Republican from Pascagoula, outlined the proposal.

The gas tax would be increased by 3 cents a gallon a year for four years, and after that increases would be indexed based upon the inflation rate. The state gas tax is currently 18.79 cents per gallon. Only four states – Alaska, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri – have a lower gas tax.

Even with a 3 cent increase, the tax would still be 41st highest of the 50 states, and more that 8 cents below the national average.

Diesel would be raised 3 cents a year for five years, then indexed for inflation. There would also be an annual tax of $300 on electric vehicles and $150 on hybrids.

The proposal would generate approximately $325 million per year, and it would all be earmarked for infrastructure, according to Busby.

The legislation also would eliminate the 4 percent bracket for $5,000 and $10,000 in taxable income. The first $10,000 would not be taxed and after that the rate would be 5 percent.

“The proposal would be a $200 tax cut at incomes of up to $10,000 and a $120 tax increase based upon driving 20,000 miles per year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles to the gallon,” Busby said.

He said it would be tax neutral for Mississippi residents, but there would be an increase in net revenue for the state because approximately 20 percent of gasoline sold in the state is purchased by out of state residents.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn supports the proposal, according to Busby. “It was an idea that was generated mutually between the two of us,” Busby said, adding that it will be introduced “as soon as the Speaker is ready to drop it.”

The proposal will be referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. If it reaches the floor, as a revenue bill it will require a three-fifth approval vote. If all 122 House members vote, it would need 74 ayes.

The MEC, Mississippi's Chamber of Commerce, presented a report to the Legislature last year calling for an increase in the gas tax to address infrastructure needs, but it failed to pass. MEC president and CEO Scott Waller said “transportation is vital to the economy.”

Busby feels there is a good chance for approval this year. “I think it has traction. But anytime you are doing something this major, it is a heavy lift. I wouldn't want to speculate on whether my colleagues will support it.”

If approved by the House prior to the February 23 deadline for revenue bills, it would go to the Senate for consideration.

Busby feels there would be public support for the proposal. “I have traveled the state and spoken to a number of civic organizations. What I have gotten back pretty much is in favor. They want to make sure the money is not squandered and is used to improve our infrastructure.”

During the breakfast, he pointed out that supervisors around the state have had to raise ad valorem taxes to repair bridges.

Senate Transportation Committee chairman Willie Simmons, a Democrat from Cleveland, said ambulances and fire engines are forced to take sometimes lengthy detours when bridges are not in commission. “That can mean the difference between life and death or the loss of a house.”

Rep. Michael T. Evans of Preston, who represents Kemper County, said “I'm not going to vote to raise the gas tax on working Mississippians.” Instead, he said the Legislature should repeal legislation from two years ago phasing out the corporate franchise tax.

Sen. Sampson Jackson II of Preston said it is too early to say how he feels about the proposal, but he added “I think we are going to make some progress this year on infrastructure.”