House OKs bonds for bridges, agencies

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Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Voting boards at the front of the chamber are illuminated as House members vote on legislation.

The House approved at least $50 million in bonds for colleges, universities and some state agencies Tuesday as well as $50 million for bridge repairs around the state.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved the money for bridge repair on Monday. Although there was little debate on the bill, which passed 112 to 4, the question and answer period among lawmakers featured several colorful metaphors to describe the limited scope of the proposal.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, described the bill as akin to “relieving yourself in the Pearl River and hoping the Gulf of Mexico will rise.”

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jeffrey Smith

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said the amount of financing in the bill compared to the need is more like getting to first base in dating.

The remarks underscored how minimal the bond package is compared to the magnitude of the need for repairs statewide.

Last year, the Mississippi Economic Council, with the support of its corporate members, pushed a $375 million initiative that would have provided funding to the Mississippi Department of Transportation for road and bridge improvements.

During questioning, Smith said that he believes a $50 million bond bill would be the most politically palatable to the Senate and that’s why it was capped at that amount despite the great need.

A separate bond bill, earmarked $45 million for Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding. The bill also had placeholder language providing each of the four-year colleges $1 million; the state’s community colleges would receive a combined $1 million. Higher sums to address specific needs at the universities are expected to be added as the bill moves through the Senate and to an eventual conference committee of House and Senate members.

The bill originally included around $47 million for colleges and universities; $25 million for community colleges; and $6 million for the Highway Patrol station in Starkville, all of which added up to about $130 million.

The House Ways and Means Committee had passed a version of the bill Monday that also brought forward code sections related to gas and cigarette taxes. That language was removed by the committee on Tuesday before the bill was sent to the House floor for action.

Smith noted that with the changes, he was offering a “clean bond bill” for the House to consider.

“We’ve got to have Ingalls in there — we’ve made a commitment to them,” Smith said during debate, noting planned capital improvements at the shipyard to keep it competitive with other shipyards across the nation under a pledge made by the state several years ago.  

Several amendments were offered but failed.

One, from Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, would have split the money up equally between the state’s 82 counties. Smith, the chairman said Foster’s intent was good, but that the bond bill is not the proper legislation to accomplish that. There was no debate otherwise and it was killed on a voice vote.

Another amendment, from Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, would have prohibited universities from receiving bond money unless they prominently fly the state flag. There was no discussion on the proposed amendment. It failed on a roll call vote of 50-65.

Lawmakers voted 104-12 to send the bill to the Senate.

The House also approved about 20 total tax and tax credit bills Tuesday, most of them nearly unanimously.