The Legislature completed action Monday on seven spending bills for state agencies that prompted a special session called by the governor.
While procedural motions on some technical bills hung up action for several hours, in the end those motions were removed, clearing the way for action to be completed. The Senate adjourned at 8:45 p.m., and the House adjourned by 10:30 p.m.
The Legislature was meeting to address funding issues left unresolved at the end of its regular session.
Budget bills for the Attorney General’s Office and Mississippi Department of Transportation passed out of the House Monday morning and made it successfully through the Senate late in the day.
The Senate Appropriations committee in the morning passed funding for $174.2 million for State Aid Road and two measures designed to address technical issues involving state funding.
The full Senate passed all three measures in midafternoon but the two technical bills were held on a motion to reconsider by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. That motion would have required the bill to be addressed again on Tuesday before being sent to the House for action.
Both chambers have to act on the bills passed by the other. Bryan dropped his motion around 7 p.m., clearing the bills for House action.
The state aid road bill passed the House Monday evening.
At midafternoon House Speaker Philip Gunn told his chamber that the governor had expanded the call of the special session to allow additional appropriations to the Secretary of State’s office.
House Bill 1 passed 114 to 1, and is similar to the original Attorney General bill that died in conference during the regular session, but removed language that caused a point of order during the regular session.
Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said the $28.4 million appropriation is a 14.2 percent cut from the reduced amount in Fiscal Year 2017. At a press conference last week, Attorney General Jim Hood told media his office requested an additional $4 million than what was originally appropriated to continue funding several programs offered by his office.
In both the committee meeting and House floor, representatives asked Snowden if the new bill would cut funding from those programs, which Hood warned may be discontinued without the additional $4 million.
The new bill does appropriate funds for each of those programs, but there are no extra funds to add because the majority of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year was finalized during the regular session, Snowden said. The attorney general’s office has the flexibility to use the appropriated funds wherever is fit within the budget, he said.
The MDOT budget bill passed out of the House 103 to 4. In the House appropriations committee, Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, told his colleagues the 1.2 billion appropriations bill removed several “pet projects” from the original bill, which died in the regular session. When asked what those projects were, Busby said he couldn’t remember specific ones but “All I know is that if we are going to push this agency to do what they need to do for the state of Mississippi from a maintenance standpoint, we don’t need to be handcuffing them with pet projects from the Legislature.”
Busby assured Rep. Steve Holland, R-Plantersville, that neither he or House appropriation leadership would support the bill if the Senate sent it back with the projects added back in.
Sen. Willie Simmons, chair of the transportation committee, announced that he would offer an amendment to the Transportation Department bill. If any amendments were adopted in the Senate, that would require House action on the changes, signaling further possible delays. But after a discussion on the floor, Simmons did not offer an amendment.
The Senate passed a bill through committee called the “Fortify Act” that amends some of the state budgeting process to appease national credit rating agencies.
The biggest change included in the bill is an increase of the cap on the state’s Rainy Day Fund from 7.5 percent of annual appropriations to 10 percent of annual appropriations.
As the name indicates, the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s largest reserve fund, exists for when revenues fall below projections and additional moneys are needed to balance the state budget. The Rainy Day Fund currently holds about $280 million – less than the current cap on the fund, which is around $400 million.
“There’s a lot of criteria the ratings agencies use, they have a lot of things totally out of control like employment rate, general health of our economy,” said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee. “Those are things you can’t just tweak with legislation. We’ve looked at things that do go into the scoring system of ratings agencies that would give us points in the final score, enhance our credit rating, and help in the budgeting process.”
The Senate committee passed another bill Monday that makes technical corrections to the controversial 2016 “sweeps law,” which swept several agencies’ special and trust funds into the general fund. Several million in special funds were “trapped” because the language of the original law that was passed was not clear enough to give agencies authority to spend it.
The bill in question, which would free up $9.8 million of “trapped” special funds, died in conference committee late in the 2017 regular session.
The third bill the Senate appropriations committee passed Monday was the regular funding bill of $174.2 million for State Aid Roads.
The addition of the funding for the Secretary of State was to ensure that payments were made as part of a settlement regarding a land transfer on the Gulf Coast. Biloxi officials had gone to court seeking the money due them when the appropriation wasn’t made.
The second additional bill relating to the Secretary of State provided about $1.5 million in funds for that office to pay back taxes to local entities for lands acquired by the Secretary of State’s office.