By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
JACKSON — Nearly 40 years ago, Mississippi spent federal revenue sharing money on a wide range of new construction at universities, community colleges and public facilities, including renovation of the state Capitol.
When revenue sharing ended during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, state lawmakers began issuing bonds for construction projects. That is, until the 2012 session ended this past week.
For the first time in as long as people can remember, there is no bond bill. The philosophical lines are drawn, even with Republicans leading the House and Senate.
Finger pointing? Oh, yes, there’s plenty.
“I was, I guess, stunned,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus. “I thought what we would do once we got into conference (with Senate), we would deal with what they wanted in a bond bill. We never conferred; not a single time.”
The House presented the Senate with a proposed $250 million bond package.
Republican Tate Reeves is in his first year as lieutenant governor, the Senate’s presiding officer. He spent eight years as state treasurer, and campaigned for the state’s second-highest office last year on the promise to reduce Mississippi’s long-term debt — to pay down the credit card balance, as it were.
Reeves said the House proposal was too much.
“It included such important things as $20 million for a sports complex. When the numbers get to such a point, someone has to stand up and say ‘no.’ I did, and that’s exactly what I had told the voters I would do,” Reeves said.
He said the proposal offered by the Senate would’ve given the universities $58 million, about 60 percent of what they sought. It also proposed $15 million for the community colleges, slightly less than the average allocation over the past four years.
Reeves said the Senate also proposed $7 million in cash and $13 million in bonds for the local bridge rehabilitation program championed by former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck.
“What we didn’t have was a Christmas tree approach where every legislator got what they asked for. We set out priorities and they were funded the right way. I don’t believe there are many taxpayers who believe we ought to increase our debt by $250 million,” Reeves said.
Smith countered that the House had a conservative package.
“State Treasurer (Lynn) Fitch said we would be paying off $284 million in bonds this year,” Smith said. “The House’s position was that we stay below what we were paying off. We were $34 million less than what we were paying off. That seemed prudent. And the beauty of our position was that we would have a bond bill with $104 million that address the needs of IHL (universities) for the next four years.”
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said the bond bill could have provided the resources necessary to help the universities provide the learning and living spaces students and faculty.
“We are in an extremely competitive higher education market, both for students and faculty. The condition of our facilities impacts our competitive edge and ability to attract students,” Bounds said in a statement.
He said the bill gave the universities $96 million for a variety of needs.
“The amount is on par with the amount received each year by individual universities in neighboring states, including the University of Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana State University,” Bounds said. “Increasing the educational attainment rate in Mississippi and investing in university research, development and commercialization will strengthen and expand Mississippi’s economy.”
Smith described the Senate proposal as a “strange combination of bonds and appropriated dollars.” He said the cash would only be available if the economy grew.
“It was ‘Take it or leave it,’” Smith said.
Reeves said it’s prudent to avoid borrowing more money by issuing bonds. He said the Legislature had gotten into a habit of issuing bonds to buy equipment that would be worn out long before the debt was paid off.
“That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We ought to utilize one-time money to pay for R&R on state buildings, college campuses and other projects,” Reeves said.
The Senate also let die House-passed bills increasing bond authority for a program that helped rural water systems.