May 1, 2012 10:55:04 AM
Funding for state and community college capital improvement projects is in jeopardy, after the Mississippi Senate failed to approve a proposed $400 million bond bill Saturday.
The state House of Representatives passed the bill, but it was killed in the Senate, following a lengthy debate between legislators and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Leaving the state without a bond bill for the coming year will affect funding for roads, bridges, fire trucks, the Mississippi Development Authority and others, in addition to the college projects.
"Am I disappointed? Of course I'm disappointed; this was the whole bond bill for the state," Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said, when asked if the bill's demise was disappointing. "I really thought we would come together at the last minute like we've done in the past. This wasn't the usual party politics; there didn't seem to be any support from the Senate at all."
The bill, as it was passed by the House, contained allocations of $4.5 million for Mississippi State University and $1,275,170 for East Mississippi Community College to be used for equipment and repairs.
"There was nothing silly or frivolous in this bill," Smith said. "It was for some bare-bones projects. This would have given our universities and community colleges bond funding for the next four years. The House was very united on this bill. The debate got pretty serious. It ended up being between (Gunn) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Reeves said he was willing to walk away without a bond bill."
Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said the House killed its own bill.
"Everybody campaigned this year on getting the debt under control," Brown said. "The House wanted to pass a bond bill right off the bat. They came at us with one that was $280 million and we tried to negotiate it down to between $100 million and $150 million. Then they came at us with a $400 million bond bill and they wouldn't negotiate it. It was either all or nothing, so it was nothing."
Mississippi University for Women President Dr. Jim Borsig said the lack of bonds will slow down some campus projects.
"The House bill included money for phase two of our library renovation as well as some funds to modernize Shattuck Hall, which houses our culinary program," Borsig said. "We have significant deferred maintenance issues, like any other university. We have been good stewards of our campus. We are fortunate to have 23 buildings listed on the National Historic Register, but they are very hard to maintain."
Community college enrollment has grown 50 percent since 2002, while state support per student has declined by 24 percent. East Mississippi Community College officials said EMCC's Golden Triangle Campus will be feeling the sting of slowed projects, too.
"We are doing more with less," said EMCC Director of Public Information Suzanne Monk. "We have programs we are authorized to teach, but we don't have the classroom space for them. We're not being critical of the legislature, but we wish we had more money to work with."
The House will continue to work on its final draft of the state's budget. Rep Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said the budget process has been going smoothly.
"We were fortunate that our revenues came in higher than we had anticipated," Chism said. "We have designed a $5.53 billion budget for the state. We have level-funded most things. (Institutes of Higher Learning) was short about $31 million, but community college funding was up $4 million. We are in the final stages of the budget. It has passed through all the committees. The Senate is working on their final version as well."
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