House votes to improve colleges, road

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Attention in the House of Representatives last week turned from state agency spending to measures that will create the revenue to fund those departments, programs and projects in fiscal year 2010.

Our Ways and Means Committee spent many hours poring over these revenue measures during the 2009 session’s eighth week. The bills then were presented to the full House for floor votes.

By week’s end, we had approved, among others, bond issues to make repairs and renovations on our valuable university and two-year college campuses and other state-owned facilities. We also approved bond proposals for transportation needs including highways, bridges and rail service; and for industrial development incentive programs in hopes of increasing existing jobs and creating new ones.

Email newsletter signup

Under HB 1712, the state would float $300 million in bonds for highway and bridge rehabilitation. Mississippi has 202 bridges that have been cited as deficient, and 97 of them are deemed to require immediate attention to protect the public safety. Backers noted that economic development often depends on whether a certain area has quality roads and bridges. Some of the highways have been targeted for improvement in earlier years, but the projects would be revived under the bill. The last major bond bill for roads we passed was for $100 million in 1999, and that debt will be paid off in full this year.

Mississippi is also receiving federal stimulus funds to make transportation improvements. HB 1713 would pay for major rehabilitation to some rail lines in the state. A major focus is restoration of a line from east to west across the state, from Columbus to the Delta. Another part would pay the state’s share of a planned “high-speed rail line” between Atlanta and Dallas that would come through Mississippi. The Port of Greenville would also draw funds to help meet its future needs.

HB 1722 would produce $86 million in bond revenue for an array of projects including university and community college facilities, rural fire trucks, entertainment venues, even more deficient bridges, museums, the state fire academy, local governments and the state wireless communications system.

The House hopes to allow citizens a break with a “sales tax holiday” in late July in HB 348. Some farmers and loggers are also in line for tax breaks through our passage of HB 1733. Persons who install wind and solar energy systems would be given tax breaks through HB 194. Cities and counties could create “entertainment districts” in HB 1623 and offer depreciation deductions from state income taxes. And HB 1639 would exempt some taxes for a $2 billion gasification project in Kemper County.

Our House committees have also been working on general policy bills that originated in the Senate. These bills face a March 3 deadline for committee action and a March 11 deadline for action in the full House. The Senate, meanwhile, is working on general bills that originated in the House chamber. A general bill we passed this week was SB 2683 that was amended to allow the State Parole Board the authority to advise the governor before he or she issues a pardon.

We had a major presentation this week from our research arm, the PEER Committee staff, on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the federal economic stimulus package. We were told the state would receive $2.801 billion in program funds in the areas of education, community and housing development, energy programs, environmental concerns, public health and Medicaid, human and nutrition services justice, labor and transportation. Another $2.3 billion will be realized from tax credits for businesses and individuals, including up to $400 for singles and $800 for couples who work as a reduction or credit to their income taxes. Also included are tax credits for child care, first-time home buyers and purchases of computer like equipment for education.

The House is committed to receiving its full share of the package, which evolved from the economic recession that slammed the nation in late 2008. One House leader early in the week called it an “economic hurricane.” The monies are intended to affect many aspects of life to help bring the nation and states back to a firm financial standing. House members were told the state could later revert to old unemployment compensation laws if it accepts funds for part-time workers. The stimulus package will offer funds for jobless workers and will allow states to increase their unemployment benefits.

With state revenues generally in decline, we had a bit of good news this week when we learned that our state-regulated casinos rebounded in January, increasing about $17 million over December.  We also learned that United Chair will add at least 125 new jobs at its Bruce facility. The company’s Calhoun County plant currently employs approximately 180 people, and pays an average wage of $13.44 per hour.

The House Public Health Committee this week approved a plan to establish a 100=bed acute care in Olive Branch in DeSoto County. The bill would issue a Certificate of Need for the facility which has been on the drawing boards for more than a decade. DeSoto is one of the nation’s fastest growing counties with people in Memphis flocking to its North Mississippi suburbs.

Late last week, the full House approved allowing the State Veterans Home Purchase Board to lower the interest rate to 2.5 percent for homes bought by veterans. The House Military Affairs Committee had earlier approved the measure which helps veterans buy new homes at lower rates.

A long list of special commendations in recent days included tributes to: retiring Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat; Pearl River Community College on its 100th birthday; late Coast banker Leo Seal Jr.; Parents for Public Schools on its 20th anniversary; and restoration of the historical monument to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis at the Old Capitol Museum.

The public is urged to watch the House and Senate proceedings live over the Internet. Go to and click on “live webcast,” then choose House or Senate. You can reach individual members of the Legislature by calling the Capitol switchboard at 601-359-3770.

Angela Cockerham represents a portion of Adams County in the state House of Representatives.