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Will millions in highway money be repaid? Will the state borrow more?

Bickering still flickering over funds

When gubernatorial candidates — incumbent Ronnie Musgrove and challenger Haley Barbour — debated at Delta State University (DSU) in Cleveland last month, the subject of $50 million used by the state from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) earlier this year to meet a budget shortfall sparked a great deal of controversy. The subject also came up during the Gulf Coast debate the following week.

“We’re not going to build I-69, we’re not going to build the roads we need around Meridian, or DeSoto County or the Coast when we’re taking highway trust fund money, money paid in special taxes for the purpose of building highways and transportation infrastructure, when we take that money and use it for other things,” Barbour told Musgrove at DSU. “We’re hurting economic development, not just in the Delta, but everywhere.”

Musgrove fired back: “Right now, there’s over $1.2 billion in that account he’s talking about. He’d rather put that $50 million back in the savings account and let our children go without schools. Letting our people go without prescription drugs. Letting our people go without the essential services that we need.”

Barbour responded: “As the governor well knows, the $1.2 billion of highway money is under contract. We’re not going to have I-69 if we keep taking money out of the highway trust fund and spending it on other things.”

The day after the DSU debate, the phone lines were jammed at the Mississippi Road Builders Association (MRBA), with road builders wanting to know more details about the highway trust fund issue — whether or not the $50 million “borrowed” this year would be repaid and if more would be withdrawn, said MRBA executive director Don Richardson.

“If the governor recommends more money coming out of the highway trust fund, that’s frightening to us,” said Richardson. “However, right at the moment, we’re paying more attention to Washington than Jackson, except for the rumors that Gov. Musgrove will want some of the money from that trust fund.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office insisted that $50 million was not “taken” from the highway trust fund, but that it was used for a management tool while the state transportation department was letting contracts.

“I’ve not heard a word about the possibility of more money coming out of the highway trust fund, but that would be a typical Musgrove solution,” said state highway transportation commissioner chairman Dick Hall. “Taking one-time money to cover a recurring expense would be exactly the kind of management that got them in the hole they’re in now.”

Hall said the governor hasn’t approached the state’s three highway commissioners about borrowing more money, but added “that wouldn’t be his style.”

“There was talk of taking $100 million or more last year and I never heard that there was a plan to pay back the $50 million,” he said. “President Bush’s tax cut package included a rebate to the state, and about 40% of that is supposed to be spent on Medicare. The rest, I understand, is discretionary. The commission sent a message to the governor and the Legislature this summer that, if you’re going to get this money, how about giving back our $50 million? Their response was nothing.”

Musgrove said Mississippi would receive roughly $212 million over a two-year period from the federal government, which would cover unfunded mandates and health care, in the form of Medicaid.

“There are specific uses the money can be used for, and replenishing that (highway) fund is not one of them,” he said.

When asked if he would use money from the highway trust fund again as a management tool, Musgrove said “no, there would be no reason to do it again in the future.”

When asked if he planned to repay the $50 million, he said “it would be unrealistic, given the state of the national economy, that it would be paid back this year.”

Hall said that he wasn’t surprised.

“When I was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Musgrove was lieutenant governor, we stayed in fights about this kind of thing,” he said. “He’s the worst in the world about putting off a problem until tomorrow. That’s why they went from a $300-million surplus at the end of the last administration to $700 million in the hole — a billion-dollar swing in four years.”

Barbour said he challenged Musgrove this summer to use $50 million from the federal tax relief bill to pay back the $50 million that was taken from the highway trust fund.

“Obviously, this is not a priority for him,” said Barbour. “I’m committed to working to repay that money to the highway trust fund.”

Both candidates will face each other in the general election on Tuesday, November 4th.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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