March 16, 2016 10:29:45 AM
JACKSON -- The possibility of raising taxes or borrowing money to improve Mississippi's roads and bridges remains alive in the Legislature, but just barely.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 13-12 Tuesday to pass Senate Bill 2921, a placeholder that could be rewritten later with tax increases or bonds.
"It basically has a whole buffet of tax and bond sections that you would use to piece together a bill," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall.
The bill moves on to the full Senate, where it must get 60 percent of votes today to pass.
That vote came after Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, abandoned a bill Tuesday that would have raised $441 million a year.
Simmons' plan called for raising taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, plus increasing vehicle license fees by $6 for passenger vehicles and by $30 to $60 for heavier trucks. Counties would have raised property taxes slightly to obtain matching grants for local roadwork, and Simmons would also spend $20 million a year from a state casino highway fund.
He said he didn't want to force senators to vote on a tax increase that might be "on a dead-end street."
Some Democrats and Republicans opposed even the placeholder, saying tax proposals should be debated openly instead of settled during late-session negotiations by a conference committee of three House members and three senators. Such a conference committee would be heavily influenced by legislative leaders, and lawmakers wouldn't be able to offer amendments, getting only a yes-or-no vote with shortened debate.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the failure to propose options through committee meetings and floor debates that all lawmakers could influence "makes one wonder why we even bother to convene the Legislature."
Bryan said he also objected to raising gas taxes when lawmakers are considering cutting $575 million worth of income and corporate franchise taxes.
Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who said he opposed increasing fuel taxes, also said short-circuiting the normal process was a bad idea.
"This is the Finance Committee," Watson said. "If we're going to raise taxes or do bonds or whatever, why are options not being presented to us here?"
Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath has said an additional $526 million a year is needed to repair more than one-third of highways and nearly one-fourth of bridges.
The state chamber of commerce supports putting more money into highways and bridges.
Legislators last approved a major increase in transportation funding in 1987.
Online: Senate Bill 2921: http://bit.ly/1QVn0vq
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