Toyota-related projects in bond bills alive in Legislature

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Two projects related to the soon-to-open Toyota plant near Blue Springs are alive in the legislative process.
On Wednesday, the Mississippi Senate passed a $400 million-plus bond bill that includes $4 million for a new education center near the Toyota site and $50 million for the four-laning of state Highway 9 from U.S. Highway 78 near the Toyota site to the intersection of state Highway 348 north of the plant.
There is no plan to four-lane 348.
Each chamber this week passed bond bills. The House proposal is more than $300 million.
House and Senate negotiators will try to work out the differences and agree on a final package later this session.
The House proposal provides $20 million for the Economic Development Highway Fund – presumably for Highway 9 near Toyota – while the Senate version contains $50 million.
Gov. Haley Barbour said the money in the Senate plan would finish the four-laning north of the plant. Last year the Legislature approved bonds totaling $90 million, which is supposed to finish the work on Highway 9 south of Toyota.
The goal is have four-lane roads going into Pontotoc south of the plant and going north into Prentiss County to attract major Toyota suppliers to those areas.
Funds from $5 million annually for 10 years pledged by Toyota to the counties of Pontotoc, Union and Lee would be used to operate the education project known as the Center for Professional Futures.
The state funds, if finally approved, would help with the estimated $35 million cost of construction.
“Students would be able to get instruction there that they can’t get in the schools now,” said Sen. Nickey Browning, D-Pontotoc. “It would be something that Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties could be proud of.”
Those counties, known as the PUL Alliance, worked to attract Toyota to the area.
“It’s a good concept that I support,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.
Rep. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo, also said he supports it.
“I think it will help the citizens of our area,” he said.
In an earlier interview, David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, described the center as “a game-changer” for the area. It would provide high-tech instruction in fields whose wages are normally considered above average.
Numerous legislators, though, have concerns about the potential costs of the bond proposals. The bond bill passed the Senate on Wednesday by a 35-12 margin, with most of the opposition from those concerned with adding to the debt of the state.
Senate Finance Chair Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said a substantial number of the state bonds will be paid off this year. He wants the total amount of bonds passed this year to equal the amount that is being paid off so that the debt is not increased.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, opposed the Senate measure, though she said she supports the Northeast Mississippi projects and would vote for them in a smaller bond bill.
The proposals passed by both the House and Senate provide funds for repairs and renovations on university and community college campuses and for state building projects.