/House OKs roads bill that could create a $108M budget hole

House OKs roads bill that could create a $108M budget hole

Unanimously, the House passed an infrastructure bill which would take more than $100 million out of the state budget and redirect it to bridge and road funding throughout the state. The House approved House Bill 722, with 118 votes for and none against. It would redirect 35 percent of the use tax revenue to cities and counties for bridge and road repair and maintenance. Online purchases by many businesses from outside the state are voluntary subject to the state’s use tax. The House quickly introduced the bill Wednesday. Rep. Trey Lamar (R-Senatobia), who is vice-chairman for the Ways and Means Committee, called it “the most important piece of legislation I’ve ever seen during my time at the Legislature at local levels.” Lamar was unable to answer questions about how the state would make those funds available for funding other state budget requirements. Each county and city would receive 15% of the tax funds. The Mississippi Development Authority would manage an extra 5 percent, which could be used to grant grants to counties and cities for the maintenance and reconstruction roads and bridges. Lamar stated, “Make no mistake, this money comes from the general fund. If this body confirms the legislation, we will be making a statement about our desire to prioritize road- and bridge funding in Mississippi.” Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus), Ways and Means chair, stated that this diversion would cause a $108 million loss to the general fund. Smith stated that he believes there will be a way to overcome the shortfall between now and conference. Some were skeptical of the strategy. “I guess I am concerned that this seems to be just an emergency approach,” Rep. Willie Perkins (D-Greenwood) said when the bill was first introduced on Wednesday. According to him, $519,000 would be paid to Leflore County (which he represents) under the bill. Perkins stated, “That wouldn’t even begin to solve everything.” After the bill had passed from committee on Wednesday, Democrats opposed to the bill being considered for consideration. They called a caucus meeting to discuss and read the legislation the next day. The bill was approved by most of the members on Thursday (Democratic representatives Kabir Karriem from Columbus and Jarvis Dortch from Raymond voted present). The House Democratic Caucus stated that they were uncomfortable voting for a bill which could result in cuts to state services and agencies. However, it was important to address the transportation crisis in the state at a press conference following the meeting. Robert Johnson, D.Natchez said that “We’ll work the rest of this session to ensure that $108 million doesn’t come on the backs people of Mississippi but it adheres the benefits of cities-counties at the same time.” Johnson, who also co-authored the amendment, stated that the House approved an amendment by Tommy Reynolds, D.Charleston. It states that the bill is “just one phase” in a necessary comprehensive state and local road and street improvement plan. “You can’t have a comprehensive plan without an influx money from somewhere else. Diversion will not get it.” “What we are committed to is making sure the public understands that it is necessary to invest money in roads, and pushing the Legislature to make hard decisions.” HB 722 is just one of a number of road funding initiatives in the House during the current legislative session. Three bills for bridge and road funding were approved by members last week. They are awaiting action from the Senate. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is silent on the matter. Local officials were optimistic about any possible movement. The Mississippi Economic Council published in 2016 a study that recommended that the Legislature allocate an additional $375million for MDOT. $300 million would go towards infrastructure improvements. MEC suggested several funding options for the highway funds. These included a gas tax hike, an additional $10 on the annual license plate fee, and a general sales taxes increase. Mike McGregor, the president of Pontotoc County Board of Supervisors, shared the frustrations of Mississippi officials who want to see action. While he believes that more use tax revenue should be diverted to counties, he can also accept a five- to seven-cent increase to the 18.4 percent fuel tax in Mississippi. This tax has not increased since the 1980s. It would be great news to get a share of the use tax revenue, but it is not enough. You need money. They have a few options. The gas tax seems to be the most straightforward. It won’t be as expensive for your mom or dad if they don’t use it often. Taxes are levied on those who use roads. McGregor stated that this is the right way to do it. As an alternative to increasing the sales tax, McGregor suggested that a diverting portion of the use tax to roads was a more appealing option. “The state’s aging infrastructure is a major problem facing many cities and counties. Vincent Creel, a spokesperson for the City, said that any assistance the Legislature could provide to repair this aging infrastructure, principally by returning tax money from local governmental agencies is greatly appreciated and needed. Creel stated that there are many things that must be considered when calculating the cost of maintaining infrastructure. These include complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, updating roads to meet current standards and traffic counts, and not the standards set decades ago when many structures were built. “There is not enough money to do it.” Creel said that tax revenue can be returned to the local government. The returned portion is important. However, if the revenue is shared locally, it is also very welcome. Reeves spokeswoman said that he will review any proposals sent to him by the Senate. Contributing: Kendra Ablaza. Support this work by making a regular donation today to celebrate our Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this story. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. 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