JACKSON – When both the Mississippi House and Senate voted to end the 2018 session Wednesday morning, a bill died on the Senate calendar that had the potential to provide additional funding for transportation needs.
The bill, which died when the Senate leadership opted not to bring it up, would have transferred to transportation half of revenue growth above 2 percent each year. The House already passed the proposal.
But considering that state revenue growth has not reached 2 percent since fiscal year 2015 and is not expected to for the current 2018 fiscal year or for the one following, it is highly questionable how much impact the proposal would have had on transportation needs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Still, as the 2018 session ended before lunch Wednesday, the bill’s death could be described as symbolic of the difficulty the Legislature, namely the Republican leadership of both chambers, is having coming up with a transportation plan.
“We were really close” to reaching an agreement for enhanced spending on transportation, said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate. “I am committed to working to accomplish the goal of spending more money on a core function of government, roads and bridges, water and sewer.”
The Legislature has been grappling for multiple years with how to generate more money for transportation. Studies have indicated that an additional $400 million per year is needed to deal with a deteriorating system of infrastructure on both the state and local level.
During the 2017 session, House members killed the budget bill for the Department of Transportation in an attempt, they said, to force a special session to continue talks on additional transportation funding. Nothing was accomplished in the 2017 special session other than the passage of the Department of Transportation budget, which included no additional funds.
This session, the only transportation-related issue that passed other than the standard budget bill for the Department of Transportation, was a plan to incur $50 million in debt through the issuance of bonds for substandard county bridges.
Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he believes the multiple ideas that passed the House would have gone a long way to resolve the issue.
“We did our part in the House,” Gunn said.
Reeves saw it differently, saying his BRIDGE Act would have addressed many of the transportation needs.
Part of the problem is the reluctance of the leadership on both sides to raise taxes to deal with the issue. Both sides, to a very large extent, relied on diverting money normally earmarked for education, health care and other areas to transportation.
“That is what we do as a Legislature – we put money toward what we think is a priority,” Gunn said. “We think roads and bridges are a priority.”
Both Gunn and Reeves said they will continue to discuss the issue even though the session has ended. Gunn even said that discussions would continue on how to divvy up lawsuit settlement funds the state received for damages from the 2010 BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico resulting in a massive oil spill. Legislators also could not reach agreement on how to divvy up those funds.
Reportedly, the House leaders wanted to use some of those funds for transportation needs.
“I think we had some good discussions” about the BP funds, Gunn said. “We are going to continue that discussion.” Gunn said if those discussions lead to an agreement, “the governor could quickly call a special session.”
If no special session occurs, legislators can look to 2019 to try again to tackle the issue of transportation needs.