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House passes bill for higher education improvements

JACKSON — The Mississippi House has passed a $325-million bond bill to pay for renovations, repairs and other projects at the state’s community colleges, universities and state agencies.

The bill passed 104-17 yesterday, and it now moves to the Senate.

Also yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee passed its own bond bill, which was about $409 million. The full Senate will vote on that measure later.

Under the House bill, the state’s universities would receive $140.5 million. Mississippi State University, the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi would each receive $18.8 million for campus projects. The other universities would receive amounts ranging from $4 million at USM’s Gulf Coast campus to $14.4 million at Jackson State University.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said requests from universities and agencies are considered when drafting the comprehensive bond bill, and the figures aren’t arbitrary.

“At the same time, we take into consideration what would be the likelihood we could get an amount through the entire legislative process and what we can get the governor to approve,” Watson said.

During debate, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, questioned whether the $10 million for Alcorn State University would be used for security upgrades, which include campus lighting. Watson said it’s his understanding that part of the funding would include the security system.

“It’s a shame and a disgrace for Mississippi to have a university that is pitch-black dark as soon as it is night,” Scott said.

The House bill also provided $25 million for the state’s community colleges. The Senate version included $25 million for community colleges and $89.6 million for the universities.

Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board of Community and Junior Colleges to Mississippi Community College, said the schools would be grateful for the funding.

“With enrollment up more than 30 percent over the past three years, our colleges are bursting at the seams. These funds will be well spent and are a wise investment for our state,” Clark said.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said a total of $227.3 million would go toward all state agencies, including the universities and collages. He said the rest is mostly for economic development projects that “should pay for themselves.”

But Kirby said as the bill moved through the process, “a lot of the funding would be taken out.”

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