Lawmakers dish in Lincoln County
It seems like it’s more enjoyable to discuss county and state issues on a full stomach.
Three Lincoln County legislators — Sen. Sally Doty, Rep. Becky Currie and Rep. Vince Mangold — met with members of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce early Monday morning at Mitchell’s to dish on road and education funding over fried potatoes, bacon and biscuits.
It was the annual Chamber-sponsored legislative breakfast and the three Republican legislators from Brookhaven made return appearances to the discussion.
“We thought last year was probably the strangest session we’ve ever experienced, but this year is topping that,” said Currie, who is in her third term. “It’s been an interesting session. I think we’re going to come out of it with some good bills.”
She said lawmakers’ biggest hurdles have been trying to find money for road and bridge improvements and reworking the education funding formula, which Currie doesn’t think will happen in 2017. “I’m not sure we’ll even get to it this year,” she said. “It’s not looking good.”
With three weeks left in this legislative session, they had plenty of topics on the table.
Lincoln County Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop moderated the event. Although about 75 Chamber members were in attendance, only five questions made their way to the front table for the legislators to answer.
Members asked about the aforementioned road funding, education improvements, vaccines, the Back the Blue bill and rural fire departments.
Currie, a registered nurse, took the first question: “Why would the state borrow $50 million for bridges?”
The House voted 109-7 last week for a bill to borrow $50 million in bonds to pay for roads and bridges, with half the money going to cities, half to counties. The bill earmarks tens of millions of dollars from taxes that companies voluntarily collect for internet sales. Half of that money goes to Mississippi Department of Transportation, with counties and cities each receiving 25 percent.
The House added the proposal to SB 2939, which returns to the Senate.
“We have sent another bill to them (the Senate) that the internet sales tax that we do get a year, which is about $80 million a year, we would direct that to roads and bridges,” she said. “The supervisors will like that we put in the bill that there would be equal amounts to cities and counties, so everybody would get their share of the money.”
Unfortunately, that’s not all the money needed, Currie said.
“We need $300 million more a year, they say. It’s hard to think about $300 million more a year for roads and bridges when we give MDOT $1.6 billion a year. So where’s the billion dollars going every year? We also want to know that, too.”
Currie said legislators met with Melinda McGrath, executive director of MDOT, to discuss it.
“One of the things I asked her is, ‘Why can’t we take $300 million out of the $1 billion to do what we need to do?’ And she said things like, ‘Well, we have projects we do every year. We have to paint the line down the middle of the road.’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s skip a year doing that. Let’s think out of the box,’” she said. “Where this will go I don’t know but we’re still working on that. Everybody up here knows that we’ve got to do something. It’s important. We want to be safe. We want our school buses to go over the bridges and do well. We get it. We’re trying to find that money.”
Mangold, a self-employed farmer, piped up to answer a question about rural fire protection. “Rural fire departments are key to any community,” he said. “You need to have a good one in your community to hopefully keep down insurance premiums.”
The representative, who is in his second session in the House, took his time at the podium to direct a question to the audience. “How many are in favor of raising your gas prices and adding new taxes,” he asked.
Legislators have been asked to consider a gas tax hike to pay for state road and bridge improvements.
“I’ve got three hands,” Mangold said, looking around the room. “That’s the general consensus in the House.”
A large portion of the Q-and-A was just answers from Doty, who explained in length three bills that she has worked to see become law.
Doty is an advocate for reform for Mississippi’s divorce laws. She said Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence came to her and asked her to pass a bill that would help women get out of toxic marriages. She filed it last year and it died. “This year, I thought we were all set. We had domestic abuse separate from any other divorce issue. There’s really no one who disagrees that domestic violence should be a grounds for divorce,” she said. “I thought we had the wording better this year, but it got tangled up and killed on a committee deadline. But it got resurrected.
“They say in the Legislature that nothing is dead until it is dead, dead, dead. It has to be dead in committee, then it has to be dead on the floor and it has to be dead, you know, not maybe brought up during conference. That bill is back. I think it’s a really important issue to women, and men, around our state.”
The Brookhaven attorney also addressed a bill she has worked on for six years that may finally make it to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk.
If passed, non-profit hospitals like King’s Daughters Medical Center would be able to collect a portion of bad debt from patients’ income tax refunds.
“We all know our hospitals around the state run on such a thin margin,” she said. “This is a bill that has all sorts of procedural protections in it.”
She explained. “It is only a debt that has been reduced to judgment. It has gone through the court system. You have had notice of this debt,” she said. “Before that you’ve had letter after letter, I’m sure, from the hospital. You’ve gone through the whole court process. Then and only if you were to have a state tax refund, if you do have that debt that’s reduced to judgment, it can be set off from your state tax refund.”
Doty said the bill passed the House without even a dissenting vote, but it got caught up in her Chamber in the Senate. “We had a lot of discussion on it, a couple of parliamentary points on it. But we finally got that passed,” she said. “I think that will help our hospitals while also providing procedural protections for anyone who finds themselves in that situation.”
Doty discussed the state budget during her introduction rather than waiting for a question about it. She said the 2018 projected budget is just over $6 billion and explained how that is divvied up and why Gov. Bryant made cuts.
“$1 billion (goes) to Medicaid costs. A large chunk goes to education. $2.5 billion,” she said.
“What has happened every year, we project what our revenue will be and set our budget ahead for that number usually. We try to set aside 2 percent for savings for the rainy day fund, but we usually budget up to that projected number.”
Creating a better budget
Doty said legislators are trying to create a performance-based budget “based on what we need and what is spent. Not projected revenue. That is what has really gotten us in trouble this year,” she said. “2017 is the year the governor has had to make these cuts on. The total number of cuts really equals about 1 percent of the budget. If you’re off on your projections by 1 percent it has a huge impact on our state budget and that is what happened this year.”
She said revenues look to be flat or a little bit lower for next year and they’re probably going to need a revision of the budget estimates for this year. That’s unusual, she said.
“I think there’s only been one other year, during the recession of 2009-2010, that revenues have been flat or not been the same,” she said. “We still have not recovered our economy in Mississippi and we hope that something will be different soon.”
Doty doled out some food for thought at the breakfast. “I’d ask you to buy at home,” she said. “I know it is easy to buy out of state or on the computer sometimes. But we need you to buy at home. It helps all of these things that we’re concerned about.”