House panel OKs bonds for medical school expansion

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi House lawmakers say they’re ready to borrow $31 million for a new medical school building, but a top Senate lawmaker remains noncommittal.

The House voted 118-1 Wednesday to approve a bill to issue $31 million in bonds for a new five-story building on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus in Jackson. Earlier Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved the measure.

Officials said the project’s price tag has risen to $76 million from the $63 million previously estimated. Lawmakers provided $4 million for project planning earlier, and Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration steered $10 million in federal grant money in October.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said House lawmakers intend to provide another $31 million next year to cover the remainder of the cost. He and other House members lauded UMMC’s plan to train another 30 to 40 physicians per year in the expanded quarters. Now, each class of physicians has 135 students.

“This will allow the doctor population in Mississippi to expand,” Smith said.

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC’s associate vice chancellor, said the money is enough to begin construction. She said site work is likely to begin in late spring.

“We are so grateful for the support from the state,” Woodward said. “This is an investment.”

Medical school officials say the 151,000 square-foot building will replace outdated student laboratories and relieve overcrowding that has forced the school’s simulation program into converted closets and a basement.

But money for the medical school could get caught up in a renewed struggle between the House and the Senate over how much the state should borrow. Last year, House members wanted to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves wanted to borrow less. When the sides couldn’t agree, no bond bill passed for the first time in years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said the Senate was prepared to support money last year in its pared-down bond proposal, but wouldn’t commit to supporting it again this year.

“There’s been no agreement,” Fillingane said. “We’ll be glad to look at it.”

Smith told committee members that he believed the Senate would support up to $200 million in borrowing during the current session, but Fillingane said it was too early in the session to “start picking winners and losers.”



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