Mississippi Senate leader signals deal likely on road money
JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi’s lieutenant governor said Monday that he’s ready to accept most of the transportation funding proposals championed by leaders of the state House. That makes an agreement more likely during a special session that Gov. Phil Bryant has said he wants to begin on Thursday.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said there’s “general agreement” that any package of legislation should include transferring some taxes on internet sales to cities and counties. He’s also ready to use money from sports betting and creating a state lottery to increase spending on the state Department of Transportation. Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican said lawmakers are also likely to borrow up to $300 million.
Reeves describes his stance as “a big move to the House position” compared to proposals he made earlier this year, which focused on diverting money to transportation that would have otherwise gone to the state’s savings account.
Both Reeves and Gunn said they personally oppose a lottery, but both have signaled they’re willing to concede to the wishes of other lawmakers. Gunn told reporters Monday that he won’t block a lottery proposal from passing his chamber “if the votes are there” among Republicans. Gunn said the House will await action on a lottery by the Senate. A prominent Baptist layman, the speaker said his opposition to a lottery rests on a conclusion that it’s bad economic policy, not his religious faith.
Reeves and Gunn said the overall plan would provide about $100 million a year in continuing revenue to local governments and another $100 million a year to the state Department of Transportation.
The House wants to divert up to 35 percent of the tax on internet sales to city and county transportation spending. Reeves said he’s grown comfortable that the state can afford to do that after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving states the power to tax all sales made remotely.
“We have generally agreed as to those transfers,” Reeves said. “There are details to be worked out.”
Reeves said he wants to consider a new grant program for some of the money, or use some of it to provide revenue streams for existing grant programs that fund city and county infrastructure needs. He said he wants to “ensure there are accountability measures in place.”
Gunn, though, said the House will press forward quickly with a plan that would send money to cities and counties with few strings attached as soon as the session begins. He said he hasn’t yet seen any ideas that improve upon the House bill, and said some of Reeves’ proposals would slow down activity.
“Our objective, from the House perspective, is to get as much money as we can into the roadbeds without any hurdles,” Gunn said.
Transportation commissioners say $400 million more each year is needed to prevent deterioration of highways. Reeves said $100 million is a significant bump in state spending, even if it’s not what commissioners want.
“I hear from people all throughout state government that tell me they don’t get enough,” Reeves said.
In the past, Reeves has wanted to eliminate Mississippi’s three elected transportation commissioners and replace them with an appointed structure, but said that wouldn’t be part of the special session. Relations between the department and Reeves are rocky. This summer, Reeves has faced questions about whether he tried to push the agency to build a $2 million road connecting the front gate of Reeves’ subdivision to a nearby Flowood shopping center.
Also in the mix is an agreement on how the state should spend $700 million in economic damage payments from BP PLC after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Legislative leaders agreed to dividing that money with 75 percent for the three coastal counties and 25 percent for the rest of the state. Reeves said the main sticking point was how to spend the roughly $100 million now in the bank, and whether to use that for designated projects. He said he thought those issues could be worked out.