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 Some lawmakers want to revamp the 20-year-old funding formula for secondary education, saying it is outdated.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.