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Lawmakers: More issues than money

The 2002 Mississippi Legislature is facing a long list ofissues, but funding to address them is in short supply, locallawmakers said during two gatherings Monday.

“Green is not the color this spring,” said Dist. 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith during a Community Elected Officials meeting.

Among the issues the senator expected to get attention when the2002 session convenes in January are tort reform, college boardredistricting and settlement of the Ayers desegregation lawsuit.One area that is “blowing the budget,” lawmakers said, is theDepartment of Corrections and dealing with criminals.

“You can turn them out, but they’re coming right back,”Hyde-Smith said.

The senator said she had spoken with some judicial officials,and lawmakers were going to try to address the situation while alsohandling the tight budget.

“It’s going to be very challenging, and we’re going to have toget more innovative than we are now,” Hyde-Smith said.

Of more local interest, Hyde-Smith said supporters “really hadto fight for” funding for the Mississippi School of the Arts. Sheadded, though, that she had received assurances that funding wouldbe available for the school.

With the state facing tough budget times, Hyde-Smith said someof the periodic talk about funding reductions is understandable.She said legislative leaders have to be reasonable and make theright decisions.

“We got a big chunk of money when we got that school here,”Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith spoke about local community support and the need forthe “significant amounts” of private money to help the school. Sheindicated the school’s foundation would be helpful in thatregard.

“We’re just going to have to get busy and do that, and it’s veryattainable,” the senator said.

Dist. 92 Rep. Jim Barnett said the foundation is getting off theground after getting its non-profit organization designation, whichhe said was an involved process. He was optimistic following somemeetings with possible donors.

“We’re getting some positive things,” Barnett said.

Regarding the state’s budget situation, Barnett said he isnormally optimistic. However, this year, he is pessimistic aslawmakers address the budget.

“We’re going to have to cut, and we’re going to make a lot ofpeople mad,” Barnett said.

Money was also the topic earlier Monday when local legislatorsmet with Lincoln County supervisors during their board meeting.

County Engineer Carl Ray Furr urged lawmakers to pursuelegislation to direct more federal Surface Transportation Program(STP) funds to counties for local road improvements.

“The STP money can be put out here … where it’s needed,” Furrsaid.

He said a certain amount is earmarked for state and municipalprojects, with the counties trying to get the rest.

“The counties are at the whim of the director of MDOT and thecommissioners,” Furr said.

Furr asked lawmakers to designate at least 25 to 30 percent ofthe federal money to counties. He said the percentage of moneycurrently coming to counties is in the teens.

“That’s been a problem: we’ve got limited funds,” Furr said,pointing out that Lincoln County gets only about $400,000 over afour-year term. “That’s unacceptable. We could use doublethat.”

District 2 Supervisor Bobby J. Watts said the county’s”farm-to-market” roads had had it.

“We need help,” Watts said.

Furr also talked about the Local System Bridge Program (LSBP).He said he was “very concerned” that legislative leaders may try todip into that pot of money to meet budget needs again thisyear.

With the state LSBP funds, Lincoln County has just aboutaddressed repairs for all its bridges with sufficiency ratings ofunder 25. However, LSBP funds could assist the county in improvingbridges with ratings under 50.

“It could do some more good for us,” Furr said about LSBPfunds.

Barnett, chairman of the community colleges appropriationscommittee, indicated the bridge funds would be protected this year.He said he told community college leaders recently to not look tobridge money to meet funding needs this year.

Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak urged supervisors to submit anyresolutions requiring legislative approval as soon as possible.

One such piece of legislation involved approval for theMississippi Forestry Commission to deed part of its property onCounty Farm Road to the county for a road-widening project.

District 1 Supervisor Cliff Givens said 17 of 18 property ownerson the road had signed agreements, but the forestry commission landwas needed. Moak said the granting legislation could not be done asa local and private bill, but would have to follow generallegislation channels.

“That’s all we lack for the road to be put under contract,” saidFurr, adding that he hoped the bid process could be expedited oncethe legislative session is under way.