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For the prospects of a roads bill, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves now represents one of the last remaining roadblocks or the light at the end of the tunnel.
The House passed three bills Thursday afternoon, each authored by Speaker Philip Gunn, who has mentioned repeatedly that road and bridge funding will be a priority this session.
Reeves and Gunn, R-Clinton, came to loggerheads over an infrastructure funding package last session. That the House got to work so soon, during the typically sleepy first week of the new legislative session, underscored that Gunn is determined to make roads his signature issue and in turn force Reeves’ hand.
The bills, which now go to the Senate, await committee assignment:
—House Bill 357 authorizes the sale of bonds to help municipalities pay for infrastructure repair.
— House Bill 354 directs any surplus revenues beyond the 98 percent in the budget proposal to the state transportation department, counties and cities.
— House Bill 359 would impose a moratorium on most new road construction if right-of-ways have not already been acquired. The bill was later amended to add a loophole for economic-development projects.
The mood among some House members was that passing the bills seemed futile because they would almost certainly be dead-on-arrival once they reached Reeves’ desk.
“Are we passing something just to pick a fight with the lieutenant governor?” asked Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, during debate on the moratorium bill.
When asked for comment, Reeves’ spokeswoman declined to say which way the lieutenant governor was leaning.
“The Senate will review the proposals sent over by the House and will work over the next three months to find a solution to support infrastructure maintenance,” Laura Hipp said in an emailed statement to Mississippi Today.
Thursday’s legislative businesses unfolded on the Mississippi Economic Council’s Capitol Day, an annual event where the state’s business and political leaders discuss their priorities for the year.
MEC President Scott Waller told reporters after the speeches that he hadn’t had time to read each of the bills, but his organization supports the efforts taking place to address road and bridge infrastructure.
“At the end of the day I think where we have to really focus is where are dollars available, if there are any, and secondly, what is the impact of them if it’s shifted from one agency to the other?” Waller said.
Waller hedged on the idea of a moratorium because the definition of “new” roads is too broad. The Mississippi Department of Transportation classifies much of its spending as construction, he said, but those funds are used to repair existing roads, not build new ones.
“I think before we say ‘let’s don’t build any brand new roads,’ lets identify what they are classifying as a new road …,” Waller said. “If you’ve got a stretch of highway that exists that needs to be replaced, whether it’s just an overlay or whether you’ve got to go down to the surface and build a bed and start all the way from the beginning and replace four or five bridges in that stretch of road, is that new construction or not new construction? I think you’ve got to be very diligent.”
Unlike most other officials who spoke at the event, Reeves was mum on roads during his MEC speech.
Instead, Reeves said job creation should be the state’s No. 1 priority. To do that, Reeves said the state should focus on fiscal responsibility, telling the crowded room, “We’re simply not going to spend money we don’t have.”
Mississippi must increase the educational attainment of its citizens and needs a “fair” tax code that encourages economic development, he said.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who also serves as Reeves’ transportation chairman, said he is concerned about several parts of the bills the House sent over. For starters, Simmons said, $50 million for bridges won’t be enough.
“Look at the thousands of bridges we have in state. When you look at local bridges in Bolivar, Sunflower and Washington counties — those three counties alone have over 80 bridges that have been closed. So it’s going to take money to do that and neither the local, nor the state alone nor federal government could do it, so we’ll have to have support from all components,” Simmons said.
Simmons also echoed a refrain of some House Democrats, who said that halting any new road construction would hurt poor areas.
“We have to generate enough money to take care of the formula that puts money in all areas of the state. Otherwise, what we will see is that the more rural parts of our state will not receive dollars, and the dollars that we currently have coming in would go to those counties that are growing population-wise and have the potential of bringing industry in at a high rate,” Simmons said.
Contributing: Adam Ganucheau, Kendra Ablaza