JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday debated creating a state lottery to fund state highways, plus diverting existing tax money to help city and county infrastructure, as a special session opened.
Gov. Phil Bryant, in a speech before the session started, argued that the problem was too urgent to wait, especially after he had to order the closure of county bridges earlier this year following safety inspections. The state reports that 437 county bridges statewide are closed for safety reasons.
"It's time to get this done," Bryant said. "We don't need to wait another week, another month."
Representatives voted 108-5 to pass House Bill 1 , which would divert 35 percent of the state's current tax on internet and catalog sales to cities and counties, an amount House leaders say will be worth $110 million a year in 2022 when fully phased in. It moves to the Senate for more debate.
Counties and cities would be given the money as long as they don't decrease the amount they're currently spending. Counties could spend the money only on roads and bridges, while cities could also spend money on water and sewer work. Each city would be guaranteed at least $10,000 a year. Mississippi's largest city, Jackson, would get more than $4 million yearly. Every county would get at least $270,000.
"This bill makes a major step forward in repairing infrastructure at the local level," said Rep. Trey Lamar, a Senatobia Republican who shepherded the bill.
The measure also authorizes the state to borrow up to $300 million mostly to be spent through an emergency bridge repair fund, earmarks proceeds from sports betting to state highways, and imposes additional yearly taxes of $75 on hybrid vehicles and $150 on electric vehicles.
Much of the debate in the House focused on $50 million in special projects that had been written into the bill, many in the districts of influential Republicans. Lamar removed those projects, saying he wanted to smooth debate, but made it clear leaders would likely put them back when House and Senate members meet later to resolve differences in the bill.
A bare majority of House members voted instead to split that money evenly between 82 counties, even though House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, a Columbus Republican, said the provision would be stripped later.
Senators, meanwhile, began debating Senate Bill 2001 , which would create a state lottery and earmark the money for 10 years to the state Transportation Department. Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, said the lottery is projected to provide about $40 million to the state in its first year and about $80 million in later years.
The bill creates a Mississippi Lottery Corp., which would be governed by a five-member board appointed by the governor. The board would hire a president of the corporation, subject to the governor's veto. Simmons' committee rejected amendments, including one to make the lottery corporation subject to the state public records act and to classify lottery corporation workers as state employees. Bryan also unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would have required places that sell lottery tickets to display the national motto, "In God We Trust." Bryan said the governor likes the motto and is pushing for a lottery.
Opponents argued the lottery was bad public policy that just shifts spending around inside Mississippi's economy.
"It falls disproportionately on the poor," said Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat.
Simmons said Mississippi residents spend $15 million a year on lottery tickets in Louisiana and $5 million a year in Arkansas.
Kenny Digby, director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention's lobbying group Christian Action Commission, walked around the Capitol on Thursday with a pair of blue jeans and two loaves of bread hanging from a string around his neck and shoulders. He said if Mississippi creates a lottery, some parents will spend money on lottery tickets.
"They should be buying bread and blue jeans," Digby said.
He said local churches and ministries will receive "an abundance" of requests to help those families with their basic needs.