March 10, 2018 10:01:42 PM
JACKSON -- As Mississippi lawmakers try to find new money for roads and bridges without raising taxes, state House members on Thursday moved forward with their version of a plan to divert future revenue and borrow money for the projects.
The bill wouldn't give control of money to the governor or take any money from current Mississippi Department of Transportation funds.
The House voted 104-6 to advance Senate Bill 3046, taking an earlier plan backed by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and senators and making a counter-offer for senators to now consider. The measure is likely headed for a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences.
"It's the best we can come up with without a straight-up tax increase," said Rep. Trey Lamar, a Senatobia Republican who presented the bill to the House Thursday. "A user fee increase with the gas tax would be the far easier way to fix MDOT, but there just aren't the votes there to do that."
The House plan would divert more than $100 million a year to cities and counties from existing tax money collected on internet sales. It would also borrow and divert another $100 million annually for five years to a new fund to be controlled by the state's three elected transportation commissioners. Finally, House members would immediately borrow another $100 million, mainly to be used for an earmarked list of projects.
The House plan shares some similarities to Reeves' plan, but his version of the bill would divert up to $800 million in future revenue to funds controlled by the governor.
Transportation commissioners had reacted angrily to Reeves' plan, which would strip $25 million a year from the department's budget, made the three elected commissioners reliant on the governor for new spending authority, and even required the governor's approval to buy new right-of-way. Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said the House's plan is preferable because it strips out those provisions. However, the Republican Hall said the proposed new funding for the department falls far short of the $400 million that officials say they need to prevent deterioration of the state highway network.
He also expressed concerns about the reliability of money directed to the Department of Transportation. More than $50 million a year would come from 1 percent of state General Fund money that is supposed to be left in reserve at the end of each budget year if revenue meets estimates.
"The hope is the economy will continue to do well going forward," Lamar said.
But Hall noted there had been no such end-of-year windfall in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 budget years. Hall said that would make it hard to plan multi-year projects, and contrasted it to the more reliable funding guaranteed to local governments.
"Whatever funding we are given, it needs to be dependable," Hall said.
About half of the House fund would be guaranteed, including $12 million a year in vehicle license fees diverted from other spending and $40 million a year in state borrowing that would be repaid using casino taxes.
Lamar said lawmakers could dip into state savings accounts to make up any shortfalls caused by diverting money in the 2019 budget year, which begins July 1.
The plan would also impose extra registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, and borrow small sums to repair water and sewer systems, railroads and dams.
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