April 3, 2014 11:02:45 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers ended their 2014 session Wednesday night after passing the final parts of a state budget for the year that begins July 1.
During the three-month session, they passed a bill designed to make the criminal justice system more efficient and less expensive. They funded a training school for a new group of state troopers. They gave a pay raise to teachers and to some lower-paid state employees who haven't had a salary bump in the past four years.
They also voted to do drug testing of some welfare recipients, to ban abortion at the midpoint of a full-term pregnancy and to add "In God We Trust" to the state seal.
Moments before the session ended, the House killed a bill that would have banned texting while driving. The bill had passed Tuesday, and Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, put a procedural hold on the bill late Wednesday. The House voted not to remove that hold, so the bill died when the session ended.
Negotiators spent hours Wednesday working on a final deal to fund transportation projects. In the end, the House and Senate agreed to put an extra $32 million into a program that helps local governments pay for road construction -- but only if tax collections continue coming in at a good pace. If the economy slows and tax collections falter, the $32 million would not be spent.
Earlier this week, the House balked at the first proposal for the transportation budget after saying the Senate had inserted $40 million worth of projects. Those included improvements to Mississippi 25 in Rankin County, near Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' home, and $11.2 million to upgrade a bridge on Mississippi 14 in Rolling Fork in the district of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eugene "Buck" Clarke, R-Hollandale.
In the final agreement, the Senate got to keep those projects and the House got more money for local road construction.
"We started this process with nothing and came back with a little bit of something," House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, told his colleagues late Wednesday.
Still, House members spent more than an hour venting anger about senators getting money for projects that are not on the Mississippi Department of Transportation's priority list.
"It's wrong, the way this has been done," said Rep. Bo Eatson, D-Taylorsville.
Clarke said the work on Mississippi 14 is crucial: "They had a road they wouldn't even allow a school bus to go down."
The Department of Transportation says it needs about $400 million more per year to keep state roads and bridges from getting worse. However, lawmakers rejected efforts earlier this year to raise taxes to pay for road upkeep.
Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, welcomed the agreement.
"We've been trying to express the need for more investment in the state's infrastructure and this is a positive start to that," Pepper said.
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