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Legislature faces thorny issues in 2013 session

January 1, 2013

STARKVILLE — Mississippi lawmakers face the usual lineup of tough issues in the 2013 session – the state budget, transportation issues, charter schools, renewed calls for a state bond bill, and perhaps the toughest issue of all, the question of whether or not to expand the state’s Medicaid program.

The 2013 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature is set to run Jan. 8 through April 7.

On the transportation front, there are increasing calls across the state for transportation funding, especially for road and bridge maintenance.

The federal gas tax hasn’t changed in 20 years. Mississippi is one of 14 states nationwide that hasn’t adjusted the state gas tax in more than 20 years.

Couple that with the fact that only five states — not including Mississippi — index their gas tax to inflation and there’s the fundamental riddle of transportation funding. At the federal and state level, rising costs of road and bridge construction and maintenance continue to drive up the cost of building and maintaining highway infrastructure — including the rising cost of fuel.

Mississippi’s 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax - last hiked in 1987 - is a flat tax. When we pay $2 a gallon for gas at the pump, the tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. When we pay $4 per gallon at the pump, the state tax is still 18.4 cents per gallon. The only way the state takes in more revenue in gas taxes is for the volume of gas consumed to increase.

According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the state’s flat gas tax isn’t keeping pace with the inflation of rising highway construction and maintenance costs and with the modern fuel economy improvements in today’s vehicles.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall says the ASCE report makes clear that Mississippi has an estimated $30 billion in highway and bridge needs between 2008 and 2035. But even in a “best-case scenario,” the state’s current gas tax structure would only generate $15.3 billion to meet those expenses.

The Medicaid expansion battle will pit the state’s Republican legislative and executive leadership against the Mississippi Hospital Association and public health care advocates who tout the expansion provided by the federal Affordable Care Act as “economic development” and good health care policy.

GOP leaders say the future of the expansion is uncertain and that such uncertainty makes the proposed expansion fiscally irresponsible. Lawmakers will be whipsawed between those two disparate political positions.

The political train appears to be on the track for adoption of significant charter school legislation, but questions linger about how much real gain the measure will bring to the state’s educational system. Also, there is some lingering enmity in the Legislature about just how expansive the charter program backed by the leadership will be in terms of “successful” school districts.

The state budget negotiations will be helped by the fact that revenue estimates have been met and slightly exceeded, but hurt by the tepid pace of recovery. Mississippi is one of 27 states reporting to the National Conference of State Legislatures that general fund revenue growth rates are lower than in previous recoveries.

Uncertainty over what Congress and the White House would do about the so-called “fiscal cliff” also left Mississippi lawmakers – as were their counterparts across the country – in holding patterns as to crafting solutions to state issues like Medicaid that had a strong federal component.

Mississippi lawmakers face making policy in the poorest state in the union year after year. But since 2005, their jobs have been exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina, protracted recessions, and now fundamental changes in federal public health care that have unprecedented impacts in poor states.

The session begins with state leaders assessing impacts from congressional actions or inactions and move forward from that point.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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