February 26, 2009
JACKSON -- The House on Wednesday earmarked $1.2 million to renovate Columbus City Hall and $1 million for Mississippi University for Women in a construction-finance bill that would provide more than $80 million for a wide variety of projects.
City Hall -- which in recent years hasn''t been used as much as before the Columbus Municipal Complex was constructed a decade ago -- needs to be renovated, said Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus.
"It looks dreadful. It needs a lot of updating," she said of the city''s formal seat of government, built in 1903.
She said Columbus Mayor Robert Smith asked her and other legislators to allocate money for its renovation.
"The city doesn''t have the funds to do it. Somebody''s got to try to do it," said House Majority Leader Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, whose district includes part of Lowndes County.
City Hall currently houses the offices of the mayor and municipal clerk. The Columbus City Council meets at the newer municipal complex down Main Street.
The House voted 93-28 for the legislation, which calls for borrowing money through bonds to pay for business loans, bridge construction and other priorities picked by legislators. House Bill 1722 now goes to the Senate for consideration
"Whether we get it or not, we don''t know. But we''ll try," Ellis said.
He helped get the $1.2 million for Columbus City Hall into the bill initiated this week by the House Ways and Means Committee.
The proposed "Columbus City Hall Improvements Fund" was attached at the end of the 198-page bill, which includes money for an assortment of construction projects, such as $250,000 for the Jackson Zoo, $1 million for the Port of Greenville and $2 million to build a new Mississippi Crime Laboratory and state medical examiner''s office.
The measure also contains funds sought by the Mississippi Development Authority to help attract or retain businesses.
"I don''t think we have an area in the state that''s not impacted in some or major way," said the bill''s chief sponsor, House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.
"Each and every item may not be essential to me, but it''s essential to someone," Watson said.
The House on Wednesday voted down an attempt to scratch out the Columbus City Hall project and replace it with $4 million to upgrade Elvis Presley''s birthplace home in Tupelo. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said more money is needed improve the popular tourist attraction and shrine to the king of rock ''n'' roll.
"He''s down in our soul deep," Holland said of Presley.
The House shouted down Holland''s request in a close voice vote, in which representatives individually aren''t on the record. But Watson said he''ll consider earmarking funds for Presley''s birthplace as the bill makes its way through the legislative process.
"This is a work in progress," he said.
The bill has $12 million for the state''s eight universities, including $1 million for MUW. Its top campus-upgrade priority is to install fire-suppression systems in two buildings, several campus apartments and the president''s home.
The bill has $2 million for Mississippi State University to renovate or repair its facilities.
There''s also $12 million for the state''s 15 community colleges.
Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and 26 other Republicans voted against the bill. GOP Gov. Haley Barbour has urged lawmakers not to borrow more money through bonds until they know more details about how much money Mississippi will get from the federal economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law last week.
Republicans have expressed concerns about the debts caused by borrowing money through bonds. Mississippi''s current bond-debt load is about $3.4 billion, according to the state treasurer''s office. This is up from the $2.2 billion in 2000.
Watson said borrowing money for construction projects is an expensive but efficient way to finance large expenditures the state can''t afford to pay for at once. "Unfortunately, we can''t operate state government without debt," he said.
To read bills, follow their progress and see how legislators voted, go to the Mississippi Legislature''s Web site: billstatus.ls.state.ms.us. The Web site also has live videocasts of House and Senate floor sessions.
House Bill 1722 to borrow $86 million through bonds to finance various construction and economic-development projects, including $1.2 million to renovate Columbus City Hall and $1 million for Mississippi University for Women:
- Esther Harrison, D-Columbus: For
- Jeff Smith, D-Columbus: For
- Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville: For
- David Gibbs, D-West Point: For
- Reecy Dickson, D-Macon: For
- Jimmy Puckett, D-Amory: For
- Donnie Bell, D-Fulton: For
- Russ Nowell, D-Louisville: For
- Gary Chism, R-Columbus: Against
- Jim Beckett, R-Bruce: Against
- Dannie Reed, R-Ackerman: Against