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Legislative Breakfast: Questions answered at gathering

NATCHEZ — Roads, health care and economic development were among the issues about which state lawmakers fielded questions at a legislative breakfast Monday morning at the Natchez Eola Hotel.

District 38 Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, District 94 Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, and District 97 Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, spoke about issues facing the state to a crowd of more than 50 people at the breakfast, sponsored by the Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce.

The legislators were also asked several questions submitted by audience members, including a potential solution to the lack of a state highway maintenance fund.

Some lawmakers have recently been pushing to raise the gas tax to create funding for road maintenance.

Johnson, who is chair of the house transportation committee, said raising the gas tax should be looked at as an investment.

“When you put money into transportation, it’s an investment,” he said “It’s not a tax.”

Johnson said the answer to creating money for highway maintenance could be combining funding sources, such as gas and sales taxes.

Johnson said, however, he does not see a gas tax increase passing this year, but does believe it is gaining traction.

On a similar note, the lawmakers were asked what is being done to improve roads in Southwest Mississippi to accommodate the traffic generated by oil production.

Mississippi ended its 2013 fiscal year with a $300 million surplus, and Johnson said he believes some of that money can be put into the Local System Bridge Program to repair the approximately 2,400 bridges in the state that are failing or inadequate.

The City of Jackson has a $2 billion infrastructure problem, Johnson said.

“That’s in the capital city,” he said. “Think of all the other problems we may have in cities around the state, too.”

Mims said he would oppose a gas or sales tax increase.

“From a philosophical standpoint, I think that’s the wrong approach.”

The legislators were also asked about the expansion of Medicaid and movement made on creating alternatives to cover uninsured residents.

Mims said he opposed a Medicaid expansion.

As an alternative, Mims said he would introduce a bill in the next few days that would appropriate $4 million for the state’s 21 community health centers.

Johnson said he does not believe that is a proper alternative because community health centers are limited in the services they provide.

“There are things they cannot do,” he said. “They do not have the ability to prescribe medicine and can’t provide critical care.”

Medicaid is not designed to just provide for people who are sitting at home not working, Johnson said. It is designed to help people with jobs who cannot afford health care.

Johnson said he believes Medicaid expansion will eventually happen, and it is important that Democrats and Republicans strive to strike a balance on the issue.

Butler said a Medicaid expansion would not only help those in need of health care, but could also create 9,000 jobs.

“(It) would have an economic development impact all around the state,” he said.