A Bi-Partisan Mutiny Over Roads and Bridges | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Bi-Partisan Mutiny Over Roads and Bridges

Deadline day morphed into a showdown between House Speaker Philip Gunn (pictured) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves over road funding.

Deadline day morphed into a showdown between House Speaker Philip Gunn (pictured) and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves over road funding. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— Lightning flashed outside as storms gathered inside the Mississippi Capitol late the night of Monday, March 27, a pivotal deadline day for budget legislation. Lawmakers milled about, refilling styrofoam cups with ice or coffee, lounging in chairs, striking up conversations. They were all out of the loop unless they were inside the inner circles of the leaders of the two chambers: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn.

The budget stand-off continued until it was almost midnight. Even then, it did not end, with Reeves and Gunn unable to agree on budgets for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, State Aid Road Construction, or Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood's office.

Tensions between the House and the Senate have rumbled all session long, in side comments and statements on the floors of both chambers ("Why aren't we using the House version of this bill?" "The Senate passed this measure unanimously, but the House killed it.") While compromising on some bills such as the House's campaign-finance reform and the Senate version of the "Back the Badge Act," the two chambers have remained divided on funding for roads and bridges.

The House had presented proposals three separate times, initially taking proactive measures to introduce legislation, then later amending bond bills. Its bi-partisan strategy is to use parts of the state's use tax—also called the Internet sales tax—collections to fund infrastructure, to the chagrin of the Senate. Reeves blocked or killed any attempt to divert what he says is an "unconstitutional tax" to fund roads and bridges—reflecting a conservative argument that Internet sales taxes are illegal even as multiple states already collect them, including Mississippi to a certain degree.

Bi-partisan Solidarity

On Monday afternoon, Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, took the podium and asked the House to take a strong stand by sending the MDOT budget back to committee so lawmakers could consider adding their use tax language into the bill. "There's a lot of give and take in politics, and some people seem more intent on always taking and never doing the giving," Busby told the House, as some members whistled.

Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, agreed, saying the Department of Transportation's budget bill does include several highway projects some legislators initiated for their home areas, including Flowood (where the lieutenant governor resides) and Natchez, which take precedent over prioritizing and funding highway projects in the entire state. "There is money that needs to be re-negotiated and needs to be put back in the bill," Johnson said, alluding to the use-tax diversion funds the House has pushed for all session. "If you don't stand up now, if you don't stand for something, you will have nothing."

The House responded with an unusual show of solidarity with all members voting in favor of recommitting the MDOT budget bill. As the vote board lit up green, members cheered and clapped, signaling a bi-partisan middle finger to the Senate for refusing to work with them on funding for roads and bridges. They played brinksmanship, opting to kill MDOT's budget if the Senate did not play ball. The House passed the second MDOT budget bill overwhelmingly, but had a couple "no" votes.

After the Rebellion

Lt. Gov. Reeves held a press briefing after the House's rebellion, telling reporters that the bill was not really about road and bridge repair, but instead about the Internet sales tax. "They so badly want to raise the internet sales tax that they're willing to blow up a budget agreement that they agreed to," Reeves told reporters. Senators sent the same budget language back to House members, Reeves said, and he put the onus for passing the budget back on the House.

"House Republicans are going to have to decide if ... unconstitutionally raising taxes is important enough to them to go against an agreement that they made," Reeves said.

However, a handful of Republicans, such as Rep. Joel Bomgar of Madison, voted against extending the Internet sales tax in earlier bills, but voted with the House to continue to work toward road funding. Monday. After the 6 p.m. deadline passed with no House action on the MDOT budget, Gunn held a press conference in his office with key GOP lawmakers responsible for the House's push for infrastructure funding.

Gunn first debunked the idea that the House's proposal was "unconstitutional," an argument that the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity is pushing at the Capitol and in a column in last week's Jackson Free Press. The new language to divert funds to roads and bridges, most recently in Senate Bill 2939, would divert "use tax revenue above the first $50 million collected from voluntary taxpayers and deposited into the State General Fund."

Amazon and other online retailers, with no brick-and-mortar location in the state, already collect use tax and give it to the Department of Revenue, and they would be considered the "voluntary taxpayers" in the bill. Litigation to require all retailers to collect the tax could get to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming years, and House lawmakers added language to conform to federal law if it changes. Until then, however, as Rep. Jason White, R-West, pointed out, "we are getting the money now, and we're going to get more."

White, Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, and Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, were all in Gunn's office to express their frustration with the Senate not considering or sitting down to meet and talk about solutions to funding infrastructure.

"Policy we strongly support ought to be given due diligence at the other end of the hall," Busby said.

Gunn defended the House's decision to push road and bridges funding to a special session, pointing out that legislators have left early several Fridays this session, leaving unspent funds that can pay for the special session.

"The idea that 'the House wants to increase taxes' is not true; we are trying to devote time and attention to funding roads and bridges," Gunn told reporters Monday night. "We were willing to do that (force a special session) for the purpose of exploring other avenues."

Target: AG, State Parks

The Legislature also neglected to fund the attorney general's budget by the Monday deadline, due to last-minute language added to the conference report. The budget bill for the attorney general's office included language that would have required his office to deposit lawsuit settlement funds into the state's general fund within 15 days of receiving those funds. The new section required the attorney general to do this before receiving any state funding for his agency.

The Senate debated this code section, with Democrats crying foul at the last-minute change. In the House, minority whip Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, raised a point of order about the language. Then, the House Rules Committee passed a resolution to amend the budget and take out the section, sending it to the Senate to keep the attorney general's budget alive.

In the meantime, Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, presented a resolution to extend the deadline and keep both transportation budget bills alive, saying he wanted an 8:30 p.m. deadline. "Certainly reasonable people in both of these chambers who were sent here to do the people's business can do this ... because the negotiations have been done, it's a matter of signing the report and filing it," Burton told the Senate.

After both chambers exchanged resolutions, for over three hours neither the House nor the Senate moved on the other's resolution, killing the three budget bills.

"We have met our deadline of midnight tonight ... (but) the House has chosen evidently to not take up our suspension resolution to avoid spending $30,000 a day of taxpayer's money," Reeves said before gaveling out at midnight.

In another last-minute surprise, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries budget bill contained new language to allow the executive director to privatize state parks, which Democrats strongly opposed. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the new section would authorize a new state program.

"This isn't right—if we're going to have a proposal to privatize state parks...that ought to go through the normal process, and there ought to be debate about it, and you shouldn't have a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that we're stuck with here," Bryan told the Senate.

One senator raised a point of order on the park section, but unlike Baria's in the House, his point was not well-taken, and the Senate passed the budget bill. Gov. Phil Bryant will have to call a special session for lawmakers to fund bills they left on the floor for politics' sake.

Comment at jfp.ms. Follow @arielle_amara on Twitter for breaking news.

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