- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi state government would borrow $250 million under an agreement between House and Senate negotiators that’s headed to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant.

House Bill 1729 had previously become entangled in negotiations over a $415 million tax cut, but once the measure emerged from House-Senate talks, it passed easily. Senators passed the bill 46-6, while the House passed the measure 108-9.

It includes $69.2 million for construction projects at universities, $25 million for community colleges and $45 million for Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula. The bill also includes $16.6 million to complete two history museums in Jackson which are to open in time for the state’s bicentennial in 2017, as well as $5 million for an arts center in Meridian and $5 million for a middle school for the Starkville-Oktibbeha school district to be built on the campus of Mississippi State University.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had said last week that he was seeking to hold the borrowing total to about $200 million, but House leaders pushed for more in negotiations. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said Senate negotiators had also threatened to reject the bill if House members didn’t agree to a $415 million tax cut.

Smith said he would have liked for the state to borrow more, but that Reeves refused to go above $250 million. Partly as a result, the bill also includes an agreement to borrow more money in future years, including $33.5 million for universities, another $10 million more for the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center in Meridian and $5 million more for the Starkville middle school at Mississippi State University. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said those amounts would have been too much, but said he was committed to getting money to universities in a predictable fashion over the next four years.

Such predictability allows universities to begin major projects, assured money will arrive later. For example, Smith said Alcorn State University could sign a contract for $10 million for new faculty and staff housing even though it will only get $7.5 million this year.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, again raised objections to the borrowing, saying the increasing price of debt service was impeding the state’s ability to spend on other things or cut taxes.

“Can someone please explain to me why anyone in the Pine Belt or anyone in Pascagoula should be building a fire station in McComb or Brookhaven?” McDaniel asked.

He also questioned $45 million for Huntington Ingalls Industries’ shipyard in Pascagoula, saying the military shipbuilder collected more in revenue last year than the state collected in taxes.

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Hurley, questioned why the state wasn’t spending more money on roads and bridges.

“I just don’t see the focus here or in other places that we could use on that,” Watson said.

Fillingane said there were a number of infrastructure projects, and in other places he had to compromise with House members and allow small amounts of spending on other items.

“There are a lot of these small projects, if I were king for a day, that I wouldn’t include,” Fillingane said.

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Online: Senate Bill 1729: https://bit.ly/1U2SQIx

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