House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed an infrastructure bill on the first day of the special session Thursday, but the local officials in the districts they represent remain significantly more divided on whether their needs are being met.
City and county officials flocked to the Capitol Thursday, anxiously watching to see if the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act would provide them the funds they need to deal with local needs ranging from deficient county bridges, to pothole-laden city streets, to aged water and sewer systems.
“I think this piece of legislation goes a long way to address the situation” as it relates to local government infrastructure woes, said House Ways and Means Vice Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia.
But some worried that the bill, which allots funding based in part on a community’s population, wouldn’t go far enough to help poor cities and counties in areas like the Delta that are grappling with declining populations.
“I agree it is a start, but it is not a panacea,” said Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, during debate on the House floor.
Still, the portion of the plan designed to help local governments, passed the House by an overwhelming 108-5 margin and was expected to pass the Senate Friday by a similar margin.
The plan, agreed to by Gov. Phil Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, appeared to being moving – albeit slowly – through the legislative process.
It will take legislators at least two days to complete work on the transportation legislation. Perhaps, the most controversial part of the plan, enacting a lottery and using its revenue for transportation, was still being debated by the Senate late Thursday. Debate on the transportation plan will continue Friday.
The plan would generate about $200 million annually. About half would be directed toward the state highway system and half toward local government needs, including repairing the nearly 500 county bridges across the state that have been closed for safety reasons.
The major components of the plan included a lottery, with the revenue dedicated to the state highway system, and the diversion of use tax revenue from education, health care and other state services to infrastructure needs on the local level.
The use tax is a 7 percent tax on most retail items purchased out of state, such as through internet sales. Another major component of the bill was the issuance of $300 million in debt that will be paid off through a tax on casinos that has been levied for years to pay for transportation improvements.
Of that $300 million in bonds, $250 million would be in a fund controlled by the Department of Transportation to take care of “emergency transportation needs” on both the state and local levels. The House leadership had originally planned to set aside $50 million in the bonds for “special projects,” or earmarks. But the full House by a narrow margin voted to divide that $50 million equally among all 82 counties.
Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, joked “If we are going to have pork on the House floor, shouldn’t everybody be included?”
The portion of the plan that will have the biggest and most lasting impact for the local governments is the diversion of the use tax revenue. Under the plan, 35 percent of the use tax revenue (about $120 million annually using current numbers) would be diverted from state programs to the local governments.
But how that money is divided among communities concerns some local leaders. Currently the bill portions money out based on a town’s population and the amount it contributes to total state sales tax each year. For towns with a steady or growing population, this plan guarantees a steady stream of funding.
But several towns in Mississippi, particularly those concentrated in the Delta, have weathered precipitous population declines in recent years. Greenville, which had a population of nearly 50,000 in 1990 stands at just 33,000 today. But the roads and infrastructure it has to maintain have stayed the same.
“I support anything that’s going to give us more money because we need more money. However and it’s a big however, the bill is deficient … There is no correlation between repairing these failing streets and the populations and the sales tax of those cities and towns,” said Errick Simmons, mayor of Greenville. “We’re trying to repair and address infrastructure that we addressed in 1985 when we had a big population now with a declining population.”
When fully enacted in four years, at least $20 million of that total would be directed to county bridges and about $50 million each to the cities and counties.
And for many local officials, this means something they’ve never had before: budget predictability.
Derrick Surrette, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said that predictability – and the fact that the funds pass from the Department of Revenue directly to the counties – is why he supports the legislation.
“You can’t build a bridge overnight. It takes planning. And if a county knows they’ve got additional money coming in they can budget for that,” Surrette said. “Right now the way it’s been in the past it had to be appropriated or bonded and you didn’t know what was coming. We need a steady, predictable stream of revenue, and this bill does that.”
In order to receive their full allotments, counties would have to spend the amount they are currently spending on roads and bridges and municipalities would have to spend an average of what they have spent annually for the past 10 years.
Lamar said the intent of the language is to prevent local governments from using the new state funds to supplant local transportation funds.
Jackson would receive the most funds among the municipalities at $4.34 million annually when fully enacted while Hinds would garner the most among the counties at $1.84 million.
The plan, labeled by the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act, also would divert smaller pots of money to transportation needs, such as the $5 million to $15 million annually expected to be generated by sports betting, which many Mississippi casinos are now allowing.