Reeves, Gunn differences block action: legislators

tate Rep. Cheikh Taylor of Starkville answers a question while, from left, state Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, state Sen. Chuck Younger and state Rep. Kabir Karriem listen.
Staff Writer

A special session of the Legislature likely will happen this summer to address funding for the state's infrastructure, but Gov. Phil Bryant won't call it until legislative leaders have an agreement. And one of the problems stalling legislative progress isn't just partisan bickering but also the political divide between Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn.

But when the Legislature is called back, the lottery will be on the table as will other proposals, such as diverting money from the state's use tax, raising "in taxes" on cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol, and raising the fuel tax, state lawmakers said Wednesday.

"The lieutenant governor and the speaker have to communicate," state Rep. Jeff Smith, the Columbus Republican who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, told the Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

"It's unreal that the speaker and the lieutenant governor can't get together," added state Sen. Chuck Younger, a Columbus Republican, referring to the inability to settle on an infrastructure bill or education funding formula.

The comments echoed those from state Sen. Angela Turner-Ford and state Reps. Cheikh Taylor and Kabir Karriem who also fielded questions during the 50-minute forum.

When asked to sum up the Legislature's accomplishments from this year-s three-month session, the lawmakers generally panned the term, regardless of party.

"The best thing we did was come home," said Karriem, a Columbus Democrat.

"Our best accomplishment was the large number of bills that didn't pass," added Smith, a Republican, referring to the more than 1,300 bills filed in the Senate and 1,900 in the House.

The group, which represent parts of Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Monroe, and Noxubee counties, agreed the infrastructure solution -- money -- may come from several sources.
Smith said he thought a bill passed by the House was a good option, but it was killed by Reeves.

The proposal would have taken 35 percent of the $310 million in use taxes collected on Internet sales and sent some to local governments to help with roads and bridges and some to the state Department of Transportation.

Reeves didn't like giving money to locals, Smith said.

Another proposal might be to index the state's gas tax, and using part of the revenue to leverage $1 billion worth of road work during the next five years.

But other opinions reflected the political differences that have made compromise difficult, even though Republicans hold a super majority in the Legislature. That majority meant Democrats spent a lot "of time playing defense and deflecting" to stop "bad bills that would have hurt a lot of people," said Taylor, a Starkville Democrat elected last fall.

Taylor said he is for the lottery and the $80 million it could generate for infrastructure.

But that's not enough to solve the "$2 billion transportation problem" especially when education is facing a $200 million a year shortfall."

Turner-Ford said sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol could be expanded to hotels and gaming to get revenue from tourists.

"Some kind of mix might work so it doesn't look like we are just taxing our residents," she said.

Younger agreed taxes on tobacco could be part of the solution, especially if the state raised its current rates to be in line with states like Arkansas and Louisiana. In addition to raising revenue, the higher rates also could discourage smoking, reducing long-term health care costs, he said, saying he also supports the lottery and raising the fuel tax.

But Smith said the cigarette tax won't pass and is not a big revenue generator.

Karriem said part of the solution must be revisiting $400 million worth of tax cuts the Legislature approved two years ago, although that is a cumulative tax cut number that would only solve a small part of financial issues facing roads and bridges and education.
"We could phase that back in," Smith said of the tax cuts.

On education, Turner-Ford said a proposed funding formula revision "had some problems" and was shot down after the public got involved.

Smith said while the proposal had some flaws, the public also must consider that funding for education has tripled since the current MAEP formula was approved in 1998 while the number of students is down more than 20 percent. When it was passed, tat formula was flawe d and legislators vowed to come back and fix it. They haven't, he admitted.

"MAEP was rurnt from the start and we haven't done anything about it," Smith said, using old Southern slang for ruined.

"People have to understand we have as much education as we can afford," he added.
The lawmakers did agree changes made to Medicaid was "probably the Legislature's biggest accomplishment."

"Anyone with substance abuse can receive treatment," Taylor noted, referring to one of the key provisions added to the state's Medicaid coverage.

The goal started out to address the state's growing opioid addiction problem but was expanded to other addictions in an effort to address long-term health issues.