Golden Triangle policymakers give takeaways from special session

By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN EDITOR

The special legislative session to discuss a massive infrastructure bill and the possibility of a state lottery will enter its third day when lawmakers reconvene in Jackson on Monday.

While both chambers of the Legislature have passed their own versions of different funding bills, both the House and the Senate must reach an agreement on a single bill before Republican Gov. Phil Bryant can sign any legislation into law.

The back-and-forth is expected to come to a conclusion before the middle of next week, and some Golden Triangle policymakers are hesitant, yet optimistic, about the end result for the legislation being discussed.

“The lottery bill started in the Senate and came over to the House and we changed it and sent it back,” said state Rep. Gary Chism, a Columbus Republican. “The internet sales tax diversion to cities and counties started on our side and (the Senate) made a change on it and sent it back.”

“I hope the Senate and House conferees will get to some kind of agreement on the two different versions over the weekend,” Chism continued. “We will have a conference report to vote on it.”

According to a November 2017 study from the University Research Center at the Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning, if a lottery was implemented in Mississippi, state General Fund revenues would increase significantly, with an estimated gross revenue somewhere between $101.4 million and $116 million from lottery ticket sales. However, the revenue would ultimately be offset by a decline in retail sales tax.

The center also reports that the maximum offset is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $18.8 million to $22.2 million, which would yield a net gain to the state General Fund of around $82.6 million to $93.8 million.

On the House side and across the aisle, the entire Golden Triangle delegation voted in favor of passing the most recent incarnation of the lottery bill and sending it back to the Senate for consideration.

Several changes were made= to the lottery bill by House members that would include a requirement for the lottery corporation, which would be created by the bill to provide oversight, to be subject to Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

The bill was initially passed with overwhelming support in the Senate on Thursday and would make the lottery corporation exempt from government sunshine laws, intended to provide transparency and the opportunity for public oversight.

State Rep. Rob Roberson, a Starkville Republican, said the House version of the bill does have requirements for the state lottery corporation, once created, to abide by all public records requests.

Chism echoed the need for oversight, saying the problems in terms of including the requirements in the legislation fall on the responsibility of the Senate, who passed it in the first place.

“The governor, everybody thinks it should be (required for public records and meetings) except some of them Senators,” Chism said on Saturday. “Sure it ought to be under Open Meetings law. If we’re going
to hire (an outside company), it sure oughta be.”

When discussing oversight, Roberson said the State Auditor’s Office will be tasked with overseeing some aspects, but under the current House bill, the lottery would ultimately be implemented and run by a private entity, which differs from how some states conduct a state lottery, but is not a wholly foreign concept.

“For the people that looked at this, it’s the better scenario, private people who know how to run this thing and to allow it to be another part of the state,” Roberson said. “Frankly, I agree with it. I do have
heartburn, though, over the way some of the other states give salaries to the people on the board, but those are things we will look at.”

State Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, a Democrat from West Point, voted in favor of the Senate version of the bill and said the expectation was that the House would amend the bill to included oversight requirements for the lottery corporation - a notion supported by Gov. Bryant during the special session.

“I think maybe once the bill works its way through the House, it will be amended on their side,” TurnerFord said on Saturday. “The governor is not opposed to it. (The Senate) wanted it to be passed and have no amendments on the score.”

She then said there have also been serious talks about adding BP settlement money to the call, but she can’t be certain as to if that will happen or what it would look like.

“The other thing I’m sure will be taken up on Monday is when the House infrastructure bill came through the Senate Finance Committee, I know there was a strike-all presented to the Senate floor, so I don’t even know what the original bill was from the House.”

A strike-all comes when a bill is presented to the other chamber of the Legislature, and the receiving chamber replaces it with it’s own version of the bill.

While the Senate considers revisions to its original lottery bill, House members will also have to consider changes to its internet sales tax bill, which passed the Senate 48-3 on Friday and was sent back for a House vote.

According to an Associated Press report, policymakers say the bill would provide $110 million annually to cities and counties in 2022 when fully funded. As a condition of the measure, counties would be required to spend the funds allocated solely on roads and bridges, while cities could put the funds toward water and sewer improvements.

If passed, the bill could have a long-lasting impact on places like Starkville, which just rolled out a extensive and costly water and sewer improvement project, while supervisors in Clay County in desperate need
of funding for road and bridge repair could see much-needed financial support.

Roberson, who also serves as the board attorney for the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, said in terms of the roads and bridges plan, the bulk of the money that would be diverted from use tax and internet sales tax could net the city of Starkville a little over $700,000 over a four-year period, coming at 25 percent each year until the full amount of internet sales tax diversion funds were received.

Oktibbeha County could stand to gain a little less than the possible total for Starkville, Roberson said, assuming that internet sales tax growth continues to trend in a positive direction once implemented.

“I don’t see it doing anything but growing,” Roberson said.

Roberson then echoed Turner-Ford when he said allocation of BP settlement funds has not been taken up yet and how much his district could see earmarked for certain projects has yet to be seen.

He then expressed his hope that Oktibbeha County could net roughly $500,000 or more for much-needed improvements to Longview Road if the settlement money is doled out at the local level.

“That’s not going to be enough money to do the road, but it will give us a little bit more money toward doing that,” Roberson said.

Chism, a staunch conservative, then said the House decided to name their version of the lottery bill after state Rep. Alyce Clarke, a longtime political adversary of Chism’s and an outspoken proponent of a state lottery.

The rare showing of bipartisan support for the lottery measure could ultimately underscore the momentum picked up by the legislation, despite disagreements between the two chambers.

“This time when I saw her down in Jackson, I said ‘I’ve thought about it every way possible, you’re going to win today,’” Chism laughed. “She even got up and commented that the gentleman from Lowndes has already conceded.”

While a state lottery and infrastructure plans have yet to reach the governor’s desk, Roberson reiterated his longstanding point that a lottery, as was the case with casinos, will not be a ‘magic wand’ fix to the state’s funding woes.

“As far as the lottery is concerned, either you’re for or against it, and an overwhelming number here are in favor, but a lot of people seem to have this idea that it’s a complete solution to a lot of the ills they are trying to fight.”

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