JACKSON – Mississippi lawmakers on Sunday voted to borrow $422.8 million to pay for needs ranging from economic development to repairs on college campuses.
The comprehensive bond bill, which includes more than 100 projects, drew lengthy debate in the House and Senate before passing in both. The bill has been held for more debate before it is released to the governor.
It provides nearly $99 million for universities; $105.7 million for state agencies and $152.9 million for economic development. It also includes $20 million for bridge repairs and $5 million for railroad improvements.
“If we were not to do this, you would probably have in 12 months, buildings falling down on campuses. If you don’t make needed repairs, just like in our homes and our businesses, the buildings would fall down. This gets us the Nissans, the Toyotas. … This is our moneymaker,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.
The bill passed 91-27 in the House and 36-10 in the Senate.
Lawmakers in both chambers raised concerns about the state’s growing debt. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said Mississippi’s annual payment on its debt is about $383 million. But Kirby also said the state didn’t have the money to pay for critical needs.
The comprehensive bond bill is one of the major legislative hurdles for lawmakers each session. The other is writing a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Lawmakers have missed a Saturday deadline to file appropriations bills. Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, one of the main budget writers, said the education and mental health remain the sticking points. He said the House wants to put millions more in those programs than Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and the Senate.
The session is scheduled to end April 2. By missing Saturday’s deadline, however, lawmakers will be forced to extend the session because they’re not allowed to vote on budget bills during the final few days they’re at the Capitol.
During debate on the bond bill in the House, there was an attempt to kill the measure after a $50 million road project drew opposition from a number of lawmakers. Watson said the road project for the Toyota plant in Blue Springs was placed in the bill at Barbour’s request.
“This is a little pet project that our conservative governor has requested. It’s going to destroy some of the most pristine countryside in northeast Mississippi just to give 18-wheelers a chance to go on a four-lane road,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, tried to have the bill recommitted, which could have killed the legislation. Flaggs said it was wrong for the Legislature to approve the Toyota road project and not approve a civil rights museum.
Watson said the proposal for the civil rights museum and a connected Mississippi history museum was still being negotiated late Sunday. Kirby said the Senate’s position is to provide $30 million in bonds for the project after $15 million is privately raised. However, the House has balked at requiring organizers to raise private money before state funds are issued, Kirby said earlier this week.
Flaggs accused Senate leaders of trying to kill the museum projects.
“Do you think a $50 million road is more important than telling our young children about the history of this state? I’m just telling you I cannot vote for it. You’re on your own,” said Flaggs, who voted against the comprehensive bond bill.
Republican Sen. Merle Flowers of Southaven unsuccessfully tried to have the vote delayed until Monday. Flowers said lawmakers should have more time to read the 276-page bill.
His motion failed 5-39.
The bill is Senate Bill 3100.
Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press