by Steve Rogers/The Packet
Money to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges will have to come from several sources. That is the consensus of six state lawmakers representing much of the Golden Triangle.
But whether a lottery, repealing controversial tax cuts, taxing online purchases, raising fuel taxes or some other options end up in the solution is anyone’s guess as the Legislature prepares for a June 5 special session to resolve two unfinished transportation budgets and the budget for state Attorney General Jim Hood’s office.
The three were left undone when the Legislature adjourned without agreement at the end of April.
The Legislature’s goal is a sustained revenue stream of an additional $200 million a year for highway and bridge maintenance and construction.
While infrastructure funding in general and the lottery specifically are hot topics, local taxpayers should know funding for education also will be restructured in years to come with more of the burden potentially being shifted to local governments.
That restructuring, coupled with continued reductions in state spending, will mean higher taxes on local property owners, some legislators warned during almost an hour of questions and answers during a legislative luncheon host by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce.
While much of the discussion — and differences of opinion — came on cuts to state taxes in the last two years and 15 months of declining state revenues, state Rep. Jeff Smith, a Columbus Republican who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, noted some relief may be on the horizon as revenues have exceeded projections by $55 million and $74 million in March and April.
“We may finally have turned the corner,” Smith told the group.
But state Rep. Tyrone Ellis, a Starkville Democrat who is among the deans of area legislators, said tax cuts that have been “handed out like candy” have been having a crippling effect.
“If you think things are dismal now, just hang around a couple of years,” he said. “You can expect tax increases locally because the burden is being put on cities and counties.”
State Sen. Chuck Younger, the Lowndes County farmer and Republican who is serving his first full term, linked the budget and tax cuts with questions about funding for education. Some lawmakers want to revamp the 20-year-old funding formula for secondary education, saying it is outdated.
“I know we need to fully fund education, K-12, community colleges, IHL,” Younger said.
“But if want to evaluate the formula, it looks like some people want to put the burden on the locals. That’s not right,” he added, noting higher local taxes would hit him hard as a large land owner.
Younger also criticized some well-known superintendents in North Mississippi, suggesting they were examples of “waste” in education, Specifically, he noted former Columbus superintendent Dr. Del Phillips III and Tupelo superintendent Dr. Gearl Loden once were among the three finalist for the presidency at Itawamba Community College.
“Thank God” someone else was hired, Younger said, noting Phillips left the Columbus school district in debt because he “wasted good money” to build a new Columbus Middle School.
“There’s a lot of wasted money in education. I believe in funding education and teaching our kids but it needs to be trimmed sometimes,” Younger said.
As for a lottery, which has been endorsed by Gov. Phil Bryant who opposed the idea until a few months ago, legislators mostly support it but warn it’s not going to solve everything.
“I’m not against the lottery per se, I’m against the timing,” Ellis said., who noted education issues such as mandatory kindergarten should be priorities. “We shouldn’t do it out of desperation, we shouldn’t do it when we are totally dependent on it. That puts all on the backs of the poor people, people who can least afford it.
The revenue isn’ sustainable enough to do what we need to do,” he continued, noting at least some potential lottery proceeds should go to education like most other states do.
Likewise, Clay County Sen. Angela Turner, a Democrat, added, “I originally said no to a lottery. I have a conflict giving tax cuts to big companies and then selling tickets to fund public services to people who might not be able to afford them.”
Turner favors repealing the tax cuts to business before supporting a lottery. She says she also could support higher fuel taxes if “that is the” last option.
“It’s like buying a raffle ticket at church or school,’ Younger said, noting all surrounding states except Alabama have a lottery. “I’ll be one of the dumb ones buying them.”
“The lottery will not bring in enough money to meet all our needs. It’s not Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, not a money tree in the backyard,” Smith explained, noting the state may eventually get between $75 and $100 million in revenues from Amazon, which has said it plans to voluntarily collect and pay online sales taxes.
The group generally backed the idea of taxing online sales but noted Congress likely will have to address a 1992 Supreme Court ruling on interstate commerce that some think blocks state’s from fully imposing local sales taxes. That issue aside, the legislators say it is a matter of fairness that is costing local businesses their livelihood.
On other issues:
— Smith said the state’s craft brewing industry is “one happy bunch of people” after lawmakers removed many restrictions on how brewing can sell and market their product, especially onsite. Smith had blocked those changes last year and was widely criticized for it.
— Columbus Republican Gary Chism took a shot at some alcohol-related bills, including one named the “Go-Cup Bill” because it allows cities like Tupelo, Starkville and Oxford with entertainment districts to allow businesses to sell to-go cups of beer and alcohol for consumption on the street.
Referencing tragic accidents related to Mississippi State the last to years, including one early Sunday morning where an MSU graduate and track athlete was killed, Chism said, “Alcohol is going to be a part of what caused that girl to die when it’s all said and done.”
— Columbus Democrat Kabir Karriem faulted Gov. Bryant for vetoing a criminal justice reform measure that passed with wide bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
“It wasn’t a panacea,” Karriem said of the five or six major measures covered by the legislation. “But it was a good start. We’ve got to do something in this state. We can’t afford to just keep locking everyone up. We don’t do a good job giving some of the people who make a mistake a second chance.”
— Karriem also noted that while the atmosphere in the Legislature at times can be “horrible” and “volatile,” he commended the Golden Triangle group for its ability to put aside sometimes “very difficult” partisan differences to take care of issues facing the region.