February 20, 2018 10:49:44 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi's lieutenant governor wants to divert existing revenue and borrow to provide more money for roads and bridges over the next six years.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday unveiled Senate Bill 3046, which he said will increase infrastructure spending more than $1 billion through 2023.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Monday, sending it to the Senate for further action. The House has proposed a number of other infrastructure ideas, and the plans would have to be reconciled before they could go to Gov. Phil Bryant for his approval.
"I hope it's something we can work with," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby, a Pascagoula Republican. He added that he hadn't yet digested the proposal
There are some commonalities between the House and Senate approaches. Both Republican-controlled chambers are avoiding increasing fuel taxes, the traditional method for highway funding, and are seeking instead to take money from existing sources.
"What it does not do is it doesn't raise taxes on anyone and something I'm very pleased with," Reeves said at a news conference.
Busby has said a plan to swap $300 million in fuel tax increases for a smaller income tax cut won't advance.
And both chambers have focused a lot of attention on assistance to cities and counties, at the possible expense of the state Department of Transportation.
Reeves would divert leftover money worth up to 2 percent of the state General Fund at the end of every year to a fund that the governor would control for "long-term strategic infrastructure investments" or to match federal money. The amount could total more than $560 million, but could be less if revenues run short. Reeves said that money would be available if Mississippi needs a pot of money to pay its share for projects proposed by President Donald Trump.
"Basically, we're taking money out of the state General Fund for infrastructure," said Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat. "That would be a great idea if we had any money in the state General Fund."
Reeves' plan would put little or no new money under control of the Mississippi Department of Transportation for use on state highways and bridges, giving the governor control over more than $800 million through the middle of 2024. In fact, the plan would divert $25 million a year from current state highway funding to a new emergency bridge fund. The state road agency has said it needs hundreds of millions a year to keep pavement and bridges from deteriorating, but would have to appeal to the governor for money from the strategic infrastructure fund.
Reeves said the state agency should find efficiencies by cutting employees or other methods.
"That will either be driven by the department or we'll drive it through the appropriations process," Reeves said.
Including other revenue that would be taken out of the general fund, the emergency bridge fund could be worth more than $250 million over six years. A state engineer would develop a list of local, not state bridges, to be repaired with the money, and the governor would choose.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, a Sumrall Republican, said that structure was designed to make sure local politics do not stymie the repair of dilapidated bridges that affect many people or industries.
Funding would cease after the 2023 budget year, although transportation advocates have sought perpetual sources of funding.
Cities could get more money, with the bill incorporating a proposal to increase the share of Mississippi's 7-penny sales tax that goes to cities from 18.5 percent to 20 percent over five years. The share would only rise, though, in years when overall state sales tax collections rise by more than 1 percent. Cities would have to match new money on a dollar-for-dollar basis and spend it on infrastructure each year, or lose it.
Fillingane said $150 million would be borrowed, including $60 million in money for local bridge replacement. The state has customarily given $20 million a year for that purpose, but gave no money last year and hasn't yet approved any money this year.
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