Reeves pushes ‘$1 billion’ road funding plan for state, local projects

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After weeks of silence on a funding bill, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves finally unveiled his plan to fix the state’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Senate leaders, just two days before the deadline to pass the measure, proposed a five-year infrastructure-funding plan Monday that they say would designate more than $1 billion in state money using a mixture of grants, loans and existing revenue streams.

“We believe it’s going to require collaboration between cities, counties, state and ultimately federal government, to meet all of the needs that our state has,” said Reeves, who announced the plan at a news conference on Monday.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at a news conference on Monday joined by Senate Finance committee chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, and Senate Transportation committee chairman Sen. Willie Simmons, D- Cleveland.

Much of the money included in the project would be contingent on revenues meeting projections and certain benchmarks being met.

• $600 million would come from the annual two percent general fund set aside, which is mandated by law to cover any revenue shortfalls. This fiscal year, leaders expect setting aside $112 million. If state revenues meet projections and budget shortfalls do not exist at the end of a fiscal year, all of that money would flow into a new long term infrastructure investment fund.

• $240 million would be available next fiscal year, including several grant programs and bond authorizations, and would cover what Senate leaders call “immediate needs.” These include city and county infrastructure repairs, and $150 million in bonds for specific local infrastructure improvement projects.

•  $200 million would flow into a new Emergency Bridge Repair Fund, controlled by the governor and the fund’s advisory board, which would be made up of leaders of non-governmental special interest groups that regularly lobby on behalf of clients and donate to candidates’ campaigns.

• $125 million of sales tax revenue over a minimum five-year period would be diverted to cities if certain triggers are met, including year-over-year growth in sales tax revenue. A version of this provision passed earlier this session in the Senate, and the author of the bill said the full $125 million mark could take “as many as 10 years” to fully phase in.

As some legislators anticipated, the plan would bring the state’s priorities in line with those of President Donald Trump’s $200 billion plan announced last week to rebuild infrastructure across the nation.

Opponents of the legislation on Monday decried the lack of time they had to read the 300-page bill ahead of Wednesday’s deadline to pass the bill out of the Senate chamber.

No senator on the Senate Finance committee, with the exception of the chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, had seen the 300-page bill before Monday’s Senate Finance meeting.

Fillingane said the process was rushed because Senate leadership had been waiting for President Donald Trump’s unveiling, which occurred last week, of a federal infrastructure program that could potentially send money to states.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

“This is no way to consider significant legislation,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. “And this bill is not near as significant as its proponents make it out to be. This is not what is needed of us to address infrastructure.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, made a motion to table the bill for just a single day so that senators could study the legislation or consider whether to add amendments. Fillingane “strongly opposed” the motion, and most Republicans on the Finance committee voted with him.

The bill would also authorize $60 million in state general obligation bonds for local bridge replacement and rehabilitation. It would also increase by $3 million the amount of bonds issued to a local government and rural water systems improvement fund; and provide $5 million as a match to federal dollars going to a fund for water pollution control.

The plan uses these funding mechanisms and others to pay for immediate local infrastructure needs, including county bridges, and long-term rail port and water/sewer needs, among other things, Reeves said.

Fillingane also said on Monday they did not consult with the Mississippi Department of Transportation on the bill.

Additionally, Senate leaders did not consult with House leadership on the plan. Several House infrastructure funding bills moved through the Legislature early this session. Reeves largely kept his thoughts on those plans to himself but spent a few minutes thanking House leaders on Monday for their earlier work.

Meg Annison, director of communications for the office of Speaker Philip Gunn, said that, other than watching a live streaming of the press conference, the office has not yet had time to look at the bill thoroughly.

“The House led with transportation legislation early in the session,” Annison said. “Infrastructure has been a priority of ours, so we will be interested in looking at the lieutenant governor’s proposal.”

House Transportation committee chairman Charles Busby said last week that Gov. Phil Bryant and Reeves had planned to come forward with a program that would “best position Mississippi to take full advantage of that federal program.”

“We understand that it’s not just going to be a gift from the federal government,” Busby said. “It appears that the plan is intended to help states who are helping themselves.”

Reeves’s office says the plan uses concepts supported by local mayors, county-level supervisors, senators and bills passed by the House, such as the handful that were passed in the first weeks of session.

Reeves said Fillingane and Senate Transportation committee chairman Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, helped draft the proposal.

“It’s going to mean a lot for economic development, commerce and public safety,” Simmons said.

Scott Waller, president and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said the bill is a step toward significant investment in transportation, though he expects lawmakers to tweak some details of the plan should it move forward.

“This incorporates a lot of things I think would make a meaningful difference,” Waller said. “It is legislation that really is meaningful when you consider the amount of dollars that would go into the system over the next five years.”