Local lawmakers say money ‘overriding issue’ of session

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

NATCHEZ &045; Facing a tight budget? You’re not alone &045; in the session that starts Tuesday, Mississippi legislators will be facing one as well.

State Rep. Phillip West and Sen. Bob Dearing, both D-Natchez, said balancing the state budget &045; which is required before lawmakers can adjourn each year &045; will be foremost of legislators’ minds this session.

&uot;The overriding issue is going to be the budget,&uot; West said, adding that he has heard cigarette taxes and toll roads listed as possible sources of new funds. &uot;If there’s going to be an increase (in funds for) the educational arena, the money’s going to have to come from somewhere.&uot;

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&uot;The budget is going to probably be the number one concern,&uot; Dearing said.

&uot;We’re several hundred million short, so if the (tax) collections don’t pick up between now and mid-April, you’re going to probably have to see some cuts until we can get a balanced budget. I just hope it’s not education.&uot;

A bright spot, however, is that the Vision 21 highway improvement program, which the Legislature passed last year, isn’t subject to budget shortfalls because it is funded by gasoline taxes, Dearing said.

&uot;However, we’re going to have to stay on top of that and make sure (the highway program) is implemented,&uot; Dearing said.

Also on the table is the issue of economic development &045; a hot topic in the Miss-Lou, where hundreds have been laid off in recent years.

And area lawmakers said their counterparts from across the state are familiar with the situation and stand ready to help.

&uot;We’re hopeful some (industrial) projects may come forward, Š and if there are any that may be interested in our area, the state would be willing&uot; to offer legislation to help, West said.

Without getting into specifics, local officials have indicated they may ask legislators to introduce legislation for incentives for industrial prospects.

Newly elected state Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, said he has already spoked to many elected officials, including his fellow legislators, about the area’s economic woes.

In fact, Mims said he and other area legislators met with incoming House Speaker Billy McCoy about the issue and secured his support.

&uot;We all agreed that southwest Mississippi has been overlooked, Šbut (Lt. Gov.) Amy Tuck and (Gov.-elect) Haley Barbour have said they’ll work with us, and we’ll have to take them at their word.&uot;

Mims said he also hopes to see legislation passed to address another business-related issue: tort reform.

Although some measures were taken in last year’s session, Mims wants a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages and wants to see &uot;venue shopping&uot; addressed as well.

&uot;I think there’s still a perception out there&uot; that Mississippi isn’t business-friendly due to lawsuit abuse, Mims said.

But much of this is still speculation, West noted.

&uot;What we have here is a situation where two of three leaders in the state are new, and their agenda, to some extent. is going to influence what will be addressed&uot; by the Legislature, he said.

Newly elected state Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, could not be reached for comment.