JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers met Sunday and neared final approval of House Bill 1630, which would use $36 million a year in casino taxes mainly to rebuild deficient bridges on state highways.
Lawmakers agreed after casinos opened to use that revenue stream for road projects to improve access to casinos. But with those projects completed and bonds mostly paid off, the money in recent years has been flowing to the state Department of Transportation to spend as it wants.
Under a conference report between to the House and Senate released Saturday, House authorizes $200 million in bonds for bridge repairs, lower than the $400 million proposed earlier. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said the total amount was lowered because of fellow Republican and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ opposition to borrowing. In 2012, the first year of Reeves’ term, he refused to agree to any bond bill.
Smith said House Bill 1630 has become tied to Senate Bill 2906, which would grant borrowing authority for universities, community colleges and other needs. That bill’s final version still hadn’t been filed as of Sunday evening, although lawmakers must adopt it by Monday. Reeves described the amount in the main bond bill as slightly over $200 million, while Smith said it was $250 million.
Regarding House Bill 1630, Reeves said it would take about $15 million a year to service $200 million in debt over 20 years, leaving about $20 million a year in the department’s budget.
Senators approved the conference agreement Sunday, leaving House approval before the bill would go to Gov. Phil Bryant. However, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said that House members are still trying to make changes to the bill.
The bill includes $18 million for construction of a bridge over the Kansas City Southern Railway in Vicksburg. Reeves said the bill aims to direct $20 million to repair county bridges, but Steve Gray of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors said the measure actually designates money for state aid roads, a separate program from local bridges.
The original House bill mandated $7 million a year for tourism projects and marketing, with the support of casinos and other business interests. But the bill sets aside only $13.5 million in one-time money for such purposes. It would provide $12 million over two years to build an aquarium in Gulfport, $1 million to renovate the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center, located in a former school in Greenville, and $500,000 to build the Catfish Row Museum in Vicksburg.
Of the three House conferees, Rep. Alex Monsour is a Vicksburg Republican, while Bennett’s district includes the aquarium site.
The bill has no projects for four other casino counties — Adams, Coahoma, Hancock and Tunica. The measure does give preference to repairing deficient bridges in casino counties and on roads in adjoining counties leading to casinos.
Webster Franklin, CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Mississippi needs to do more to promote tourism, especially with the casino business is shrinking.
“We’ve got serious, fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” Franklin said.
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