House and Senate leaders worked late into the night to hammer out far-reaching bond bill agreements that will impact highway construction, renovations and repairs at the universities and community colleges and tourism projects across the state, including the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo.
Wednesday night was the deadline for House and Senate leaders to reach agreement on an overall state budget and on bond bills to primarily fund long-term construction projects. As expected, no agreement was reached on the state budget, though, both House and Senate leaders said substantial progress was made.
Both chambers, with a two-thirds vote, at some point will have to suspend the rules to take up the more than 100 budget bills that died Wednesday night.
Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the two sides are close to an agreement on the amount of revenue that will be available to appropriate. There is a $6 million difference between the two.
“We’re real close,” he said, though the task of actually divvying out those funds is yet to begin.
House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he still hopes to convince two-thirds of the Legislature to finish all its work except the budget by this weekend and take a 30-day recess to see if the state gets an additional $187 million in federal stimulus funds. Congress is expected to pass legislation to provide extra stimulus funds to states.
Those funds would help plug holes in what will be another difficult budgeting process caused by an unprecedented drop in state tax collections.
House Republicans for two consecutive days have blocked efforts to recess. But on Wednesday, the House Democratic leadership fell only three votes short of the needed two-thirds majority.
The bond bills agreed to Wednesday night consist of a package of $300 million for roads, bridges and railroads and a $302 million package for universities, community colleges, tourism sites and state buildings repairs.
“The needs are there because we went too many years without giving an adequate amount of money for repair and renovations,” said House Ways and Means Chair Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.
Money is going to improve the roads going to Toyota, even though the manufacturing plant’s opening has been postponed because of the poor economy. But Senate Transportation Chair Tom King, R-Petal, said Gov. Haley Barbour remains confident “the plant will be manufacturing cars before we complete that road.”
King said $90 million should be more than enough to complete the four-laning of Highway 9 from Pontotoc to U.S. Highway 78 near the plant. He said he hopes that work can be finished by 2014. Work also is planned for Highway 9 north of the plant to state Highway 348.
The transportation bond package also includes $50 million to jump-start priority highway projects, many of which are located in Northeast Mississippi, such as portions of state Highways 25 and 15. And it includes money for county roads and bridges and funds for improvements to substandard bridges on state highways. The proposal also has $8 million to make improvements on U.S. Highway 72 in Marshall County for an economic development project.
Rep. Greg Ward, D-Ripley, said he had hoped to obtain more funds for the priority highways, known as Vision 21, but “but I was happy with what we could get.”
The other package includes $89 million for the universities and $24 million for the community colleges. Several tourism projects received funding, including $2.8 million to make enhancements to the Elvis Presley Birthplace. But local officials must raise $240,000 to garner those funds.
“Elvis is a big tourism attraction and we feel it would bring money into Mississippi,” said Senate Finance Chair Dean Kirby, R-Pearl. “Everything we did was to help Mississippi produce more income.”
Besides the money for the various building projects, the package includes an additional $150 million for economic development projects, such as loans for small business projects, and loans funds for local governments for infrastructure improvements. Both chambers are expected to take up the bond proposals today.