No money for colleges, universities in special session call

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Gov. Phil Bryant’s official call to bring lawmakers back to Jackson on Monday creates several big questions.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Gov. Phil Bryant

In addition to seeking passage of appropriations bills for the state transportation department, attorney general’s office and state-aid road office — three agencies whose fiscal year 2018  budgets were not resolved by the conclusion of the regular 2017 session — Bryant is proposing legislation that he says will increase the state’s ability to “maintain a balanced budget and healthy finances.” In a Facebook announcement of the call, Bryant estimated that the session would last one or two days.

Bryant’s proposed FORTIFY Act would require a multi-year financial plan from the Legislative Budget Office, which Bryant said credit rating agencies prefer written into law. The proposal also would raise the so-called rainy-day fund cap from 7.5 percent to 10 percent.

The call put to rest some speculation about what would and would not be considered during the session.

In early May, officials made it clear that a new education funding formula would not be included in the special session. Later in May, Bryant announced that his call would also not include the implementation of a lottery.

Absent from the governor’s agenda is a bond package, which fell victim to sniping between Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, particularly for construction projects at colleges and universities.

The House plan would have provided some funding for infrastructure repairs plus money for building projects at universities, colleges and community colleges. Specifically, the House version called for $47 million for the Institutions of Higher Learning, $25 million for community colleges, $22 million for state agencies to use on capital funding and needs and $40 million for bridges.

The Senate version would have provided about $50 million for infrastructure and up to $70 million for the Institutions of Higher Learning and community colleges.

As of late Friday, state officials had no information or were not talking about funding college and university projects.

State Sen. Josh Harkins

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood and chairman of the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee, said he planned to speak with members of Bryant’s staff.

“We set out a plan at the beginning of the term that they (universities) can make their arrangements on. When we don’t have a bond bill, to take that out for underneath them, it’s tough,” Harkins said.

Bryant’s office did not immediately respond to a question about institutions of higher learning bond funding late Friday afternoon.

The governor did say action taken during the special session could be met with approval from credit rating agencies. Raising the cap on the rainy-day fund, ending the practice of using projected cash balances for budget projections and eliminating the budget contingency fund would be welcomed by rating agencies.

The governor also wants legislators to clarify the so-called sweeps bill passed in 2016 to include “several technical amendments” to, among other things, allow agencies to spend federal funds on utilities and technology.