Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. Nov. 2, 2021.

Editorial: Lawmakers blew it on fuel tax

For years the Mississippi Department of Transportation and business groups around the state have been complaining that the revenue stream for fixing roads and bridges has not been keeping up with the rising costs.

John Caldwell, the transportation commissioner for the northern third of the state, was beating that drum last week during a talk to the Greenwood Rotary Club.

He said MDOT’s budget has been roughly the same for the past decade, even while the costs of materials and labor have risen. That has put Mississippi years behind in bringing its transportation infrastructure up to snuff, in part because MDOT can’t hire enough workers for what it can afford to pay. Caldwell said that 25% of the authorized positions in MDOT at the district level are currently unfulfilled, which explains why it seems to take forever to get even supposedly simple tasks done.

Just like the problems have been obvious for years, so has the solution: raising the fuel tax.

The problem is that the Legislature, because of its stubborn refusal to consider a tax increase on gasoline and diesel, squandered a perfect opportunity to raise the tax a couple of years ago. Back then, gasoline prices had fallen below $2 a gallon, a historic low when adjusted for inflation. Mississippi could have easily raised the tax, which has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1987, by 10 or 15 cents. There may have been some initial grousing, but within a week, everyone would have adjusted and moved on with their lives.

Now the political conditions are not as favorable. Inflation, thanks to supply shortages and pent-up demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is running at its highest pace in decades. Gasoline alone has jumped in price by about $1 per gallon since January.

Voters will be sensitive now to anything politicians do that further raise prices, and potential challengers to incumbent lawmakers will be ready to pounce on any tax increases.

Raising the gas tax still needs to be done. It’s the only logical and equitable way to ask those who use the roads and bridges to pay their fair share toward maintaining them. It just would have been so much easier if it had been done when the timing was perfect.

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Tupelo Daily Journal. Oct. 27, 2021.

Humane Society needs funding. City, county need details. And animals need a solution

There is no question that the Tupelo-Lee County Humane Society is in dire need of additional funding. It is facing a national trend of rampant overcrowding due to COVID-19 that has led to skyrocketing costs.

According to the latest data, the local Humane Society shelter is housing 342 animals — more than twice the animals for which it has space. It also has another 201 animals in foster care, which come with costs, too.

As a result, monthly operating expenses have ballooned from an average of $73,000 to $93,000 since last year. At this rate, the Humane Society board of directors says it has only a few months worth of funding left to operate.

Therefore, they are asking the city of Tupelo and Lee County to up their funding. The Humane Society has asked each government entity to provide an additional $30,000 per month.

This amount is triple the shelter’s current shortfall. It is also more than six times what the county and double what the city currently provide.

As you can imagine, both the city and county — while keen to keep the Humane Society shelter open — are somewhat hesitant to agree to the requests. Both governments are seeking more information. They want to know more details about how the money will be spent, why the Humane Society is asking for triple its current shortfall and what — if any — expense cuts can be made to help offset increased spending.

For the Humane Society’s part, the group is not asking for these levels to become permanent. It is only seeking to shore up the explosion in expenses until such time as the sheltered animal population returns to normal levels.

And the Humane Society has already taken some measures to manage the influx of animals and rising costs. It has moved from an “open admission” policy, where it takes in most any animal brought to the shelter, to “managed admission,” where the shelter takes in animals it is contractually required to accept while providing foster placement for some others. This includes providing people who bring in animals with supplies, food and medicine to foster the animals until a permanent home can be found.

But Tupelo and Lee County clearly have more questions, and the Humane Society needs to work with them to provide as much information on its budget, expenses, trends and possible savings as possible.

The problem facing the Humane Society is significant, but so is its request of the local governing boards. We are certain that — through continued negotiation and meetings — a solution can be found.

In fact, a solution must be found. Closing the shelter should not be an option to entertain.

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The (Columbus) Dispatch. Oct. 27, 2021.

Editorial: Declining numbers not a reason to slack on vaccinations

The worst of COVID-19 may be behind us. After an enormous spike in cases and deaths in August as a result of the delta variant, cases and deaths are declining throughout the country.

As of Oct. 6, 67 percent of vaccine-eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated while 77 percent have had at least one dose.

Since President Joe Biden’s September executive order requiring all federal employees, all employees of companies that have federal contracts and all companies who employee more than 100 people require vaccinations as a condition of employment, the vaccination rate in the U.S. has jumped by a robust 14 percentage points in a single month.

Companies that have mandated vaccination report compliance rates at 90 percent or higher. Meanwhile, Gallup polling shows that support for mandated vaccines continues to grow and is above 50 percent in all polled categories – private workplace employees (55 percent) federal employees (60 percent), companies with 100 or more employees (58 percent), hospital/health care workers (63 percent) and mandates that provide time-off for employees who have been vaccinated (68 percent).

This may run counter to much of the news we hear about mandates, which shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the old “airplane” phenomenon: It’s not news when an airplane lands safely, but big news when one doesn’t. Coverage of vaccine resistance is disproportionate to reality.

Here in Mississippi, federal mandates have less of an effect than in other states. For starters, there are more small employers (less than 100 employees), businesses that are not subject to the mandates.

Vaccination efforts have also been hampered by state leadership, which has consistently wavered on COVID policy and messaging.

Perhaps no better example of this is the IHL, which governs the state’s eight public universities.

In August, the IHL said its universities could mandate vaccinations. In September, it voted that universities could not mandate vaccinations. Last week, the IHL again reversed course, requiring all universities to vaccinate their employees. The latest reversal came when the IHL was informed that refusing to comply with the federal mandate could mean forfeiting more than $270 million in federal grants.

In a state that is the third most reliant on federal funds, change is often more a matter of (federal) dollars rather than “sense.”

That the state’s vaccination rate (52 percent have had one dose and 45 percent are fully vaccinated) continues to be the lowest in the nation should not be a surprise.

Yet if we should have learned anything over the last year-and-a-half, it is that there is a direct relationship between COVID requirements and the number of cases and death. When precautions and requirements are dictated, cases/deaths decline. When they are relaxed, cases and deaths spike. We’ve seen this pattern repeat itself multiple times since the pandemic started.

The current decline in COVID cases and deaths is good news. Our best means of maintaining that trajectory is through vaccinations. Many employers are requiring their employees to be vaccinated even though the federal mandate does not apply to them. Full disclosure: The Dispatch requires its employees to be vaccinated.

Those companies should resist the temptation to remove those requirements as COVID cases/deaths decline.

Rather, employers should view the decline as affirmation that the vaccine requirements are working.

And, of course, we urge all eligible Mississippians to get vaccinated, not because it is required, but because it’s the right thing to do – for themselves, their families and their community.

We’re headed in the right direction, but we still have a long, long way to go.

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