MDOT funding dispute prompts special session

Print More

Legislative negotiations on state transportation funding fell apart Monday, forcing a special session needed before the next fiscal year starts on July 1.

House and Senate leaders couldn’t reach an agreement on a bill that would fund the Mississippi Department of Transportation before a 6 p.m. deadline for action on conference reports for appropriations bills.

In the dramatic hours before the deadline, House leaders sent two transportation bills back to the Senate for more negotiation.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters that the House demanded the insertion of a provision that would create an internet sales tax and divert an existing use tax to help fund roads and bridges improvements across the state. But Senate leaders, led by Reeves, stuck to their previously stated views on the issue that the taxes are illegal and refused to budge.

House Speaker Philip Gunn told reporters a press release put out by Reeves’ team was inaccurate because of its reference to an unconstitutional tax.

“Its not the implementation of a tax,” Gunn said. “It just says whatever we collect, a portion of that would be devoted to roads and bridges.”

“The House has put forth three separate attempts, two of which were in response to issue that the lieutenant governor and the Senate raised,” Gunn said. “And not once has the Senate at the other end of the hall sat down with us to discuss this.”

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters minutes before Monday’s deadline to pass conference committee reports.

“That’s certainly their prerogative to stand on the House floor and lie,” Reeves said Monday at 5:15 p.m. “The Republicans have the votes to save taxpayers $30,000 a day for a special session. The Republicans in the House have the votes to keep us from having to spend taxpayer money to keep us from raising taxes.”

Gunn noted to reporters that the House had not worked on six Fridays during the legislative session, saving taxpayers $22,000 per day or a total of $132,000, according to House clerks. The cost of a special session for one day is $68,720.

Gunn, in a statement sent by his staff 24 minutes before the 6 p.m. deadline, stood his ground and said the bill would die in committee at 6 p.m., and a special session would be coming.

“We have adjusted our offers each time to meet the concerns of the Senate, only to have them dismiss our proposals,” Gunn said in the statement. “We have not been presented with any public policy reasons why our ideas are not worthy of discussion. The House is determined to have a conversation about our state’s infrastructure.”

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn describes efforts made by the House of Representatives to fund infrastructure.

“Maintaining roads and bridges is a fundamental role of government,” Gunn’s statement said. “The House has prioritized roads and bridges time and time again. We have worked tirelessly to find a solution to start addressing the needs of our roads and bridges.”

At 6:20 p.m., Reeves and top sergeant Parks MacNabb were on the Senate floor whipping votes for a suspension resolution that would extend the missed 6 p.m. deadline to midnight. Suspension resolutions require a two-thirds vote, or 35 yeas.

“I doubt it will pass over there (in the House), but it will show that we are willing to fight to save taxpayers $30,000 for a special session,” Reeves said to a group of senators directly in front of the press table as he lobbied for their support.

The Senate unanimously passed the suspension resolution at 7:05 p.m.

“I cannot tell you how irresponsible it would be to not do what we’re sent here to do,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, Senate President Pro-Tempore. “I can’t tell you how irresponsible it is to get this done today instead of costing $30,000 a day. In a tight budget year, most budgets are being cut. It would be totally irresponsible to give them a little more time to work this out.”

Gunn said he met with Reeves Monday and they were cordial. Reeves also said they had talked several times during the day.

“It’s certainly not intended to be personal,” Gunn said. “What it’s intended to be is us seeking a solution for roads and bridges. This is just another attempt on our part to try and push that issue.”

Reeves also shrugged off questions about perceived tensions between him and Gunn.

The House had voted almost unanimously earlier Monday to send House Bill 1509 and Senate Bill 2978, two bills that fund the Mississippi Department of Transportation, back for more negotiation between House and Senate committee members.

“There’s a lot of give and take in politics, and some people seem more intent on always taking and never doing much giving,” said Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula.

The move came after a bond bill that would have provided millions for construction at colleges, community colleges and of roads and bridges died over the weekend.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia

Rep. Trey Lamar, R- Senatobia, who was in the session with Gunn and reporters, said the Senate “flat out insisted” that all bonds were presented in one bill.

“And because a large part of our road funding plan consisted of bonds for bridges, all that had to go in one bill,” Lamar said. “It’s unfortunate, but what happened was the Senate, for whatever reason, did not want to have a conversation about the long term funding of roads, was willing to kill IHL, community college, all those other things that were very worthy.”

The battle over developing new funding mechanisms for roads and bridges traces back to early in the session.

Gunn has diligently and publicly disclosed his support for multiple bills that would have provided additional funding to MDOT for roads and bridges repairs.

The first, House Bill 480, called for some $40 million the state collect from users who voluntarily pay taxes on online purchases to be put toward repairs for roads and bridges.

The Senate Finance committee killed that bill in late February, but not before Gunn made a rare public plea to his Senate colleagues, urging them to keep the bill alive and calling it “the last train out” for funding infrastructure improvements.

Reeves and Senate Finance Chairman Joey Fillingane, a top lieutenant, were unmoved. In a meeting last month with reporters, the two called imposing a new Internet sales tax “unconstitutional” based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision. They also expressed concern with pulling the existing voluntary use tax revenue from the anemic general budget.

“We don’t think this is a very good time to be transferring this $40 million out of the general fund,” Reeves said in late February.

The House tried once more with Senate Bill 2939, a local property tax bill. The House reworked SB 2939 to collect an amount equal to the use tax revenue above the first $50 million “collected from voluntary taxpayers and deposited into the state general fund during the preceding fiscal year, not to exceed $2 million.”

The bill ultimately died in committee.

“The House has put forth three separate attempts, two of which were in response to issue that the lieutenant governor and the Senate raised,” Gunn said. “And not once has the Senate at the other end of the hall sat down with us to discuss this.”

A separate House bill, sponsored by Gunn himself, involved authorizing $50 million in bonds for local governments to use for infrastructure and requires MDOT to spend more of its budget on improvement projects.

That bill was also killed by the Senate Finance committee, and leaders speculated it could be included in the House’s comprehensive bonds bill, which died Saturday in committee.

For more, read: House demands more roads funding