House tackles roads, schools

One week into the 2018 session of the Mississippi Legislature, there’s much to like about what the House of Representatives is doing.

With no dissenting votes, the House approved a bill that, if it becomes law, would apply about $100 million from the 1.5 percent “use tax” to roads and bridges. This tax is paid off products shipped from outside Mississippi for use or consumption in the state.

Transportation clearly is on the House’s mind. Lawmakers also approved bills to borrow $50 million for county and municipal bridge repairs, to allocate part of any future state revenue growth to transportation and to halt new construction projects.

Meanwhile, on the education beat, two House committees are scheduled to discuss Speaker Philip Gunn’s bill to create a new funding formula. As it currently stands, the formula would call for $109 million more in spending next year.

At least the House is looking at the state’s tough issues. But there is one obvious question that cannot be avoided: Who’s going to give up all this extra money?

After all, the state’s economists say they do not expect tax revenue to increase in the coming year. While fair to say that the economists might be wrong; it also would be reckless for the Legislature to budget for extra revenue that no one is predicting.

Some agency or program is already getting that $100 million from the use tax. Same for the $109 million in education money that would be allocated if lawmakers chose to fully fund a new formula.

Democratic Sen. Robert Johnson said his side would oppose taking money from education, social services or Medicaid. They also would oppose employee layoffs or pay cuts.

Interestingly, The Associated Press reported that some of the extra education money would come from other funds, specifically for career and technical education programs, that schools already are getting. If that’s accurate, good luck convincing educators that they’ll get more money under a new plan.

The House does deserve points for its efforts, even though other funding options, such as an increase in the state fuel tax for roads and bridges, would be a much easier path. This is made plain by the idea to borrow money for city and county bridges.

Repaying a relatively small one-time loan is unwise when compared to increasing a revenue stream through fuel taxes. But in spite of lobbying by the Mississippi Economic Council and other business groups, Republicans in the majority remain unconvinced.

The state Senate, meanwhile, has been remarkably quiet about these issues. It’s pretty easy to take that as a signal that the upper chamber isn’t too enthusiastic about the House proposals.

If indeed the Senate is skeptical, there are a couple of obvious reasons. One might be that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves doesn’t like to borrow money. Another is that senators are more cautious than the House about actually finding more money for roads and schools.