By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The $89 million in bonds approved Friday by the Legislature to finance construction – primarily repair and renovations – at the state’s eight public universities is the third most in recent history.
In 1994, the Legislature approved $99 million for repairs and building projects at the universities. And in 2004, late in the year during a special session, the Legislature approved $108 million, but that essentially was for a two-year period.
The total bond package approved Friday by the Legislature is about $702 million, though, more than $150 million is for loan programs or has provisions that prevent the state from issuing the bonds and incurring debt unless conditions are met, such as the federal government providing matching funds for rail line repairs.
And the state Department of Transportation will pay $5 million per year from its existing revenue sources to help pay the debt on the $300 million in transportation bonds.
Still, the bond proposals approved by the Legislature on Friday and expected to be signed by Gov. Haley Barbour are some of the biggest in recent years.
Senate Finance Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said one of the biggest reasons for the large bond issue is the need. He said there are buildings on the university campuses that are literally leaking and in danger of permanent damage unless repairs are made. He cited a building at Mississippi State where rainwater is coming in widows.
“We need to take care of those buildings or some of them could be in real trouble,” Kirby said.
House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, agreed.
“The need was there because we went too many years without giving an adequate amount of money for repair and renovation,” he said.
In recent years, Gov. Haley Barbour has worked to curtail the size of many of the bond proposals in an effort to hold down the state’s debt. But Kirby indicates the governor is on board with the current proposal.
“We had to come up with a bill the Senate would pass, the House would pass and the governor would sign,” Kirby said. “I think we have done that.”
Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour, did not commit to the governor signing the bond proposals, but said, “Clearly we are going to wait to get the legislation and review it but, in general, we are in agreement.”
Part of the reason for the larger bond bills, as Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has pointed out, is interest rates are near record-low levels, meaning the state can issue bonds with less cost.
Plus, Kirby said construction costs and building supply costs are also low.
“And these will definitely create a lot of jobs,” he said.
House Tourism Chairman Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, advocated improving and enhancing tourism projects through the issuance of bonds as one method to aid the ailing state economy. The final bond package has about $16.7 million for various tourism projects across the state, including $2.8 million to enhance the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo and $150,000 for the Ida B. Wells Museum in Holly Springs.
Wells was born in Holly Springs in 1862 and was a black journalist who was involved in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement.
“We’re investing in Mississippi and Mississippians with our culture and our heritage ..,” Peranich said in an earlier interview. “This will create jobs for ordinary Mississippians – local jobs in the restaurants, coffee shops, filling stations.”
The bond packages includes:
* $24.3 million for the 15 community colleges for repair, renovations and other improvements.
* $2.1 million for Mississippi civil rights historical sites.
* $5 million for improvements designed to conserve energy on state-owned buildings.
* $36 million for discretionary repairs that might come up on state buildings through the year.
* $89 million for the universities, including $10 million for the University of Mississippi at Oxford and $10 million for Mississippi State and $11 million for the MSU Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine.
At Ole Miss, the funds are intended to construct a central chiller plant and to repair and renovate buildings and infrastructure.
At Mississippi State, the funds will be used for repair and renovation.