October 21, 2020

Lawmakers agree to borrow $360 million for projects; GOP leader admits choices driven by politics

Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday agreed to borrow more than $360 million to finance construction, industrial development and local projects that are much-coveted in an election year.

The House and Senate passed Senate Bill 3065 , which includes $207 million in borrowing, although the House held it for the possibility of more debate. Other money has already been borrowed in separate bills, including $45 million to aid improvements at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, $86 million to fund economic development at the Mississippi Development Authority and $12.5 million for a home for medically fragile children in Jackson.

Many Democrats complained that Republican leaders left them off the list for projects.

“I don’t expect balance all the time,” said Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson III of Natchez. “I’m not talking about disparity. I’m talking about zero. We got nothing.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus, told representatives they should blame him for decisions, but then confirmed decisions were driven by the politics of trying to help some lawmakers who face opponents as they seek re-election.

“They were trying to help some of the members that are going to have tough races,” Smith said.

Universities will get $85 million and community colleges will get $25 million, while state agencies will get $38.6 million. Local projects total $58.4 million, funded by borrowing. The state will spend another $27 million in special projects not by borrowing, but by using surplus money in last year’s state budget that was set aside for capital improvements.

Lawmakers agreed years ago to invest more than $100 million to improve the state-owned portion of the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula. The $45 million this year is the last installment of the multiyear deal.

Legislators are also agreeing to borrow $11 million that would help aid construction of a replacement Veterans Affairs hospital at a development in northern Biloxi that is being developed with a medical focus.

Jackson lawmakers complained their districts were being particularly neglected. Republicans noted the state has begun diverting some sales tax money to a district to improve areas around the state Capitol.

But Democratic Rep. Alyce Clarke of Jackson said that money does little for areas of the city far from downtown.

“We want to make a difference in our neighborhoods so our constituents can see it’s worth us being here,” Clarke said.