BRIDGE Act is dead as infrastructure funding negotiations break down

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After more than three days of closed door negotiations between House and Senate leaders, House Speaker Philip Gunn told Mississippi Today on Friday that the major legislation drafted to provide more than $1 billion in additional infrastructure funding is dead.

Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gunn

Gil Ford Photography

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Both sides were poised to officially negotiate provisions of the bill in conference committee meetings this weekend. But before those meetings occurred, negotiations broke down between Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

The specific hang-up, Gunn said, was a provision of the bill that would require cities and counties to match – dollar-for-dollar – any state funding that would be applied for road and bridge repairs.

“No bill is better than a bad bill,” Gunn told Mississippi Today early Friday afternoon. “We believe our proposal, without the match requirement, resulted in real dollars to the cities and counties. The match idea that was proposed by the Senate, we just did not think it would result in real dollars.”

We walked down to his (Reeves’) office and said, ‘We’re not going to do what you want to do. It’s unworkable, it’s unreasonable, and it doesn’t fix the need,’ ” said Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, who worked on the House version of the bill.

Gunn confirmed the breakdown shortly after informing House Republicans in a lunch meeting on Friday that the bill would die.

Reeves was discussing the bill with a group of reporters later Friday afternoon when Mississippi Today informed him that Gunn already had told his own Republican members the bill was dead.

“Ok, well, there you have it,” Reeves said as Gunn walked up to the group, then acknowledged the disagreement over the local match requirement. “The issue, as he (Gunn) and I have discussed numerous times, is with respect to the provision in the Senate bill that would have required local governments to match any state dollars. We have not been able to reach agreement on that.”

“I think there’s general agreement, it’s just a matter of how exactly to get it done,” Reeves continued. “The good news is that we all agree that we’ve got to invest more money in public infrastructure. That could not have been said three years ago.”

Lawmakers face an 8 p.m. deadline on Saturday to pass conference reports on revenue bills. Gunn said he would be open to further negotiations if Senate leaders removed the requirement that local governments match state funding.

Reeves in mid-February announced what he called a $1 billion proposal, called the “BRIDGE Act.” That announcement came after the House had passed it’s versions of how to address road and bridge repairs.

Last week, the House passed an amended version of the Senate bill that gutted Reeves’ plan, eliminating key provisions and adding sections that mirrored the earlier pieces of legislation that Gunn had sponsored and pushed through his chamber in the first two weeks of the session.

House leaders cited the passing of House Bill 722 — passed in the second week of the session — in negotiations this week. It would have diverted 35 percent of the state’s use tax collections, about $100 million a year, to cities and counties to spend on infrastructure.

Gunn and other House leaders on Friday said Reeves’ provision that forced cities and counties to match state funding would crunch municipal budgets, forcing either reductions in services or tax increases.

Somebody who may be running for statewide office was going to go around the state saying he’s got a road plan and didn’t raise anybody’s taxes,” Lamar said on Friday. “Well I’m not going to be able to sleep at night because I’ll know that’s not true.”

“Essentially, if the state forces the cities and counties to match, I guess they could lay off firemen and policemen, but that’s not reasonable or practical,” Lamar continued. “They have real needs and we want them addressed in a real way that doesn’t force them to raise taxes.”

The “BRIDGE Act” had been set to go to conference committee this weekend, where small groups of leaders from each chamber would have negotiated a final version of the bill. Many in the Capitol, including key legislative leaders, had called the bill one of the most important pieces of legislation proposed this session.

Reeves’ version of the bill called for $600 million in revenue over five years to move to a new infrastructure fund. The fund would be created by setting aside 2 percent of the anticipated revenues for a fiscal year.

But last week, the House amended the bill to divert just 1 percent of anticipated revenues to infrastructure. House Transportation Chairman Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, called diverting all 2 percent of the set aside money “a little fiscally irresponsible.”

Another provision in Reeves bill was that $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.

House leaders had eliminated that provision in their version of the bill.