Bill to fund roads gains momentum

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The Legislature appears to be on track to finally pass a plan that will help patch the state’s ailing roads and bridges.

The House on Thursday passed — by a vote of 103-6 — an infrastructure package that amends a version previously passed in the Senate and uses a combination of agency budget cuts and borrowing, including from the state’s so-called rainy day fund.

More 100 pages longer than the Senate’s, the House bill includes key differences such as lowering the amount of funds that would be set aside for infrastructure spending and providing the Mississippi Department of Transportation with more spending flexibility.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, presents an infrastructure bill to the House in January 2018.

“We were not in favor of much of what was in that (Senate) act, but we saw a vehicle that we could use to benefit the immediate and long-term infrastructure needs of the state of Mississippi” said Rep. Trey Lamar, R- Senatobia, who is vice chairman of the House’s Ways and Means Committee. “That’s what we feel like this policy does.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has criticized spending and what he characterizes as an unwillingness to look for efficiencies at the state Department of Transportation. Nonetheless, Reeves lauded the House for moving the bill, proposed in February, along.

“I appreciate the House for keeping the $1 billion BRIDGE Act, a comprehensive plan to address both state and local infrastructure needs, moving through the legislative process,” Reeves said in a statement. “The Senate looks forward to continuing talks to address our critical needs.”

The bill, which would take effect July 1, heads to the Senate which could approve the House changes or send it to a joint conference committee.

The biggest pot of money in the Senate version of the bill – $600 million over five years for the Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund — would be formed by setting aside 2 percent of the Legislature’s total spending of collected revenues for a fiscal year and diverting that to the new fund.

The House now wants to put away 1 percent of the general fund revenue estimate for that fiscal year over the next five years, or about $60 million a year, and place that in the new Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund, which would be administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The House version of the bill also aims to give MDOT more flexibility in spending the investment fund, whereas the Senate version would have stripped much of MDOT’s spending authority and project flexibility, transferring much of the elected, three-member Mississippi Transportation Commission’s spending authority to the governor.

The House version of the bill also calls for a study committee to facilitate public and private partnerships in infrastructure development.

This is a big change to the Senate version, which would have created a board made up of representatives from some of the most powerful special interest groups in the state, such as the Mississippi Economic Council and Mississippi Municipal League, to make recommendations to the governor on which projects should be approved.

Red Creek Bridge, Mississippi Highway 57, Jackson County

The study committee in the House version of the bill would include representation from the governor; lieutenant governor; the speaker of the House of Representatives; the Department of Finance and Administration, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Commissioner of Higher Education; the Mississippi Department of Transportation, and the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

Another $12 million to $15 million collected from auto tag fee diversions would go into that fund, Lamar said.

A special gaming fund, which would draw revenue from casino taxes, would allow the state to bond another $200 million, or $40 million per year for five years.

Lamar said this would put $115 million into the Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund through the next five years.

The House also borrowed language from its former House Bill 722, an infrastructure bill that would pull $108 million from the state budget and divert it to road and bridge funding around the state.

The bill required diverting 35 percent of use tax revenue to counties and cities for road and bridge repair and maintenance. Lamar said the state currently acquires around $310 million in use taxes.

Counties and cities would each receive 15 percent, or about $45 million, of the tax funds for road projects, while the remaining 5 percent would go to the state’s Local System Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program, which provides grants to cities and counties for maintenance and reconstruction of roads and bridges.

Another roughly $100 million in general obligation bonds would help start a number of road projects “from Tennessee to the Coast” in the next year, Lamar said.