Miss. House and Senate Approve Borrowing $196M | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Miss. House and Senate Approve Borrowing $196M

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A bill to borrow $196 million would send tens of millions to universities and community colleges for construction projects.

Senate Bill 2913 is on its way to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's desk after sailing through the House and Senate on Monday. It also contains borrowing authority for special projects favored by powerful Republican members.

Lawmakers didn't pass a bond bill in 2012, after leaders of the GOP-led House and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves couldn't agree on how much to borrow. From 1996 to 2011, lawmakers authorized some borrowing every year. The typical amount authorized was $345 million, ranging from a low of $28 million in 2008 to a high of $857 million in 2010.

The bill authorizes $208.55 million in new borrowing during fiscal 2014, which starts July 1. But, leaders subtracted $12.1 million in old bonds that they blocked from being issued, taking the total down to $196.45 million.

The measure includes $96.5 million for universities, including $31 million to help build a new medical school building at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Community and junior colleges would get $25 million, parceled out by a formula.

That's enough for institutions to get started on their needs, but not as much as they said they needed. The College Board said last summer that the top 10 projects on each of its campuses would cost a combined $684 million.

"We gave a little something to all of the universities and community colleges, but we didn't give any of them everything they wanted," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall.

The bill also puts up $10.35 million to improve East Mississippi State Hospital in Meridian, $10 million to replenish an industrial incentive fund run by the Mississippi Development Authority and $10 million to improve the Port of Pascagoula.

It also includes smaller projects, such as $500,000 to repair hail-damaged Lovett Elementary School in Clinton, the hometown of Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn, and $250,000 to improve the parking lot at the Mississippi Craft Center in Ridgeland, a project championed by Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison.

Universities and the state Department of Finance and Administration had said they wanted a multiyear commitment so institutions could get started on big projects that require multiple years of money. The bill contains a statement that the Legislature intends to continue to the same streams of money in 2015 and 2016, but it's not clear how binding that promise is.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, was one of two senators who voted against the borrowing plan. He objected in part because it includes money to build museums and other tourism attractions, including $3 million for a Grammy music museum in Cleveland, $2 million for the former home of the late U.S. Sen. J.Z. George near North Carrollton, $1 million for a museum to house the country music collection of singer Marty Stuart in Philadelphia and $1 million for the planned Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi.

"At this point in time, where we are with the recession, I would not support construction of any museums; even though frankly I think they would be wonderful to some extent, this isn't the right timing for that in my mind," McDaniel said.

Some House members complained that the bill didn't contain money to help Jackson State University build a planned domed stadium. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said he and other legislative leaders plan to meet with representatives of JSU and the managers of the state fairgrounds to discuss the stadium and proposed renovation of the Mississippi Coliseum, which is on the fairgrounds.

"What we're trying to have, before we leave, is a truth session," Smith said.

But supporters of Jackson State said their plans shouldn't be tied to those of the Agriculture Department, which oversees the fairgrounds and coliseum. The Jackson State stadium would not be on the fairgrounds.

"It seems like every time there's an opportunity to do something for a historically black university, it's tied to something else," said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. "Why should something for our universities be ties to something else?"

Smith said tying together projects at Jackson State and the fairgrounds could strengthen the chance of each passing, because their supporters would work together.

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