Area policymakers weigh in on special legislative session

Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

The long-awaited possibility of a special legislative session to address infrastructure issues across the state may come to fruition after all following a Twitter announcement by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant on Friday.

Bryant took to social media to announced that he will call the special session on Aug. 23, so policymakers can tackle issues relating to infrastructure repair and maintenance, along with a plan to allocate BP settlement money for the Gulf Coast following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The possibility of a special session has been in question for some time, with House Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves failing to come to an agreement.

State Rep. Rob Roberson, a Starkville Republican, said one of the biggest hiccups for doling out funds comes in how they will be earmarked for projects at the local level.

While the uncertainty looms over the session, Roberson expressed his hope that he will be able to back some funding to District 43, which covers parts of Oktibbeha and Winston counties.

Roberson is also in the unique position of serving as the board attorney for the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, putting him in a front row seat to many of the county’s infrastructure concerns.

“I’d like to see an earmark for Longview Road, and another for Starkville would be to widen and fix things on South Montgomery,” Roberson said. “In Winston County, there’s a connector road to Highway 25 to Louisville that needs to be addressed, to me there needs to be some way of us being able to earmark some of these funds for projects in our district that are a priority.”

Like Roberson, State Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, a Democrat who represents Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, also serves as the board attorney for the Clay County Board of Supervisors and is keenly aware of the county’s needs from an infrastructure standpoint.

“There is a cry for the community for roads and bridges,” she said. “I’ve received copies of resolutions from the city of Columbus, I’ve been in the board meetings when the Board of Supervisors in Clay County asked if there are to be funds collected for internet sales tax to be diverted to the county, I agree with those positions, but that is certainly an issue I would like to see.”

The governor previously said he hopes to put $640 million into highways and bridges over the next three years, but just how to accomplish that feat has been an ongoing debate among lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Turner-Ford said while some areas may face more pressing infrastructure issues than others, the problem is still widespread across the state. And for Clay County, which operates on the beat system as opposed to the unit system, the responsibility and burden of repairing and maintaining infrastructure is put primarily on the individual county supervisor.

As it stands, though, it is still too early to tell just what will be addressed during the session.

“I’m just looking forward to getting the official proclamation which will identify the issues we have to address,” Turner-Ford said. “I don’t like not knowing. The governor determines the issues and I’m just very curious what they will be.”

First term State Rep. Cheikh Taylor, a Starkville Democrat whose district covers parts of Oktibbeha, Clay and Lowndes counties, was less optimistic about the outcome of the session, saying funding for public education was once again being put on the back burner in favor of infrastructure.

While it may not fully fund close what Taylor, who campaigned hard on a pro-education platform, views as the state $240 million education funding gap, he said a lottery could yield up to $80 million that could then be put toward education across the state.

He then conceded that roads and bridges are an important issue for the state of Mississippi as a whole, but insisted it is not a more pressing problem in his district as opposed to funding education.

“We know that the three things on the agenda proposed was the sports betting, internet sales tax and lottery and it’s my understanding that the whatever is generated will be dealt on the county and municipal level,” Taylor said. “I’m a little dismayed that public education was not included in those conversations.”

Taylor said many states with a lottery earmark the funds for education, however the focus remains on roads and bridges. But what makes the problem doubly frustrating for the young legislator is the political divisiveness between his party and the Republican super majority.

“I have to say, the Democratic Caucus was really not included in these conversations, so to be matter of fact, I have no idea what will be talked about,” Taylor said. “I know there have been several times the republicans have met and ironed out the details. For me, I want to make sure that money goes in the hands of who knows what to do with it, that of course are Supervisors and the Board of Aldermen who know the intrinsic needs of our community.”

Roberson then said it was important for lawmakers to not get ahead of themselves as far special session because of the uncertainty regarding the amount of funding that will be allocated, if any.

“For my own expectations, if I can get some earmarking, I have priorities at the local level,” Roberson said. “That being said, it may come down to a percentage of total funds that come in are automatically allocated.”

According to Roberson, both the Republican-controlled House and Senate are looking at going for a more use-tax friendly base. For the upcoming session, Roberson said there is a likelihood that a fuel tax could be discussed.

What’s most important, though, is avoiding a stagnant tax plan that is eventually outpaced by improved fuel economy and technology as in years past.

“Hypothetically, my take on this would be, if it was raised by two cents, I think most legislators would like to see that sent back to local communities and the other part through MDOT,” Roberson said. “It needs to be some kind of situation where we’re not stuck in a certain program.”

Taylor the reiterated that supports of public education take a vocal stance to their legislators across the board as the session approaches.

“I will petition to any and every one to start making calls right now,” Taylor said. “Not just to who is your personal or chosen state rep, but to both parties. Sometimes we think of representation in a narrow way. Those phone calls and letters, they do matter.”