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Analysis: Halfway through session, big debates yet to begin

JEFF AMY

JEFF AMY

Mississippi’s 2016 legislative session may be halfway over, but debate has yet to really begin on three of the biggest issues.

Although some officials have staked out positions on raising more money for roads and bridges, rewriting the state’s K-12 funding formula or cutting taxes, no real proposals have moved forward yet.

Any one of those issues is a heavy-duty fight that would typically be a signature achievement of a legislative session. The question now: Is there enough time and capacity to tackle all three?

Observers might begin to see more details soon. The deadline for tax and spending bills to clear their originating chamber is March 16.

The House passed a placeholder bill last week to allow lawmakers to revise the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which determines how much state money flows to public schools, though Democrats fought even that. And the Senate passed Senate Bill 2158, which would switch the method of counting students from average attendance to average enrollment, a change that could bump up the amount demanded by the underfunded formula by about $13 million.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula said decisions on MAEP changes might not be hammered out until the bill goes to House-Senate negotiations, one example of how the biggest decisions could be backloaded to the closing days of the session.

Republicans and business leaders have tied together the other two big issues — road money and tax cuts. They say they want tax cuts to offset any tax increases for roads.

When House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, brought out House Bill 1386 to divert some of the BP oil spill settlement to road improvements, observers including former House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, interpreted the move as a sign that Republicans might not have the will to raise taxes on gasoline and diesel. Smith told House members during debate that it was an alternative to raising taxes.

But the measure has sparked predictable outrage from Gulf Coast leaders, who say the lion’s share of the cash needs to stay on the coast, and not be spent by the state away from areas impacted by the 2010 disaster. The oil spill money would cover less than one year’s worth of road needs, when the Department of Transportation says Mississippi needs $526 million a year to repair state roads and bridges.

Busby, who’s also a player in this drama as well as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Smith’s move shouldn’t be interpreted as the House leadership giving up on raising fuel taxes. Any bill raising taxes will require 60 percent of votes, and it seems unlikely that House Speaker Philip Gunn will be able to entice all his GOP members to vote for a tax. That might be one reason House Republican leaders made nice with the minority Democrats after a rupture over redistricting — they may need some Democratic votes to pass a road bill.

The House, Senate and Gov. Phil Bryant advanced competing tax cut proposals last year, only to see House Democrats use a blocking minority to shoot down one large plan. All the 2015 tax plans counted on future revenue growth to offset money that would no longer flow into state coffers. With a moderately bad budget outlook, it could be harder to give hundreds of millions in tax relief, or at least to put a substantial amount into the budget beginning July 1.

Answers to these questions will come by late April. But in some cases, the answer could be too much, too late, not this year.

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