Mississippi senators preserve chance for road funding

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Opponents are still heaping scorn on an empty vessel of a transportation funding package, but the bill remained alive Wednesday after the Mississippi Senate passed it 34-13.

The measure now moves to the House for more work, but it’s unlikely details would be fully fleshed out until after House and Senate negotiators meet toward the end of the session. Lawmakers are trying to balance competing demands including tax cuts, more funding for roads and bridges and slowing state revenue growth.

In that context, supporters of Senate Bill 2921 said the most important thing was for lawmakers to keep their options open while negotiators meet. Right now, it makes more changes. But it could be rewritten to include tax and fee increases or borrowing. Other tax cut proposals and the Legislature’s annual bond bill to borrow money for universities, colleges and state agencies could also be rolled in to attract support.

“This piece of legislation will give you the opportunity to keep discussing it,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

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 Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has called for a funding increase of $300 million yearly for state roads and bridges and $75 million combined for cities and counties

Legislators last approved a major increase in transportation funding in 1987.

Opponents, though, say lawmakers shouldn’t be forced to make one take-it-or-leave-it vote on such an important issue, and some say cutting other spending would be a better option. Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, likened the bill to an empty suitcase, saying conference committee negotiators could send it back at the end of the session stuffed not only with goodies but tax increases that he said would be like lugging around bowling balls, snakes and an albatross.

“We’re just asking you to vote for this suitcase,” Watson said. “We’ll pack it up later and you can look at it again.”

Democrats who are opposed to Republican plans to cut taxes also fought the plan, saying doing that and increasing gas and diesel taxes would make taxes fall more heavily on poorer people.

“This is primarily a huge shift in the tax burden from the multistate corporations … putting it on the drivers of this state,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.