Spending bill funds millions in Miss. projects

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, March 12, 2009

The federal omnibus spending bill that President Barack Obama signed on Wednesday funnels millions of dollars to Mississippi, including $205 million for construction at the Yazoo City federal prison.

Other big ticket items include $61 million for construction of Mississippi River levees and $31.5 million to continue work at the national strategic petroleum reserve site in Richton.

The money is part of the regular federal budget and separate from the federal stimulus package that also is expected to bring $2.8 billion to the state.

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“With these funds we will be able to continue the important work of improving our state’s infrastructure, enhancing quality of health care and education and creating an environment to attract new businesses,” said U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations committee.

Highlights from the spending bill provided by Cochran’s office include:

— $3.1 million for construction of a poultry science research facility at Mississippi State.

— $6.5 million for construction of the Mississippi biotechnology research park at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

— $1.5 million to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies to complete construction of a facility focusing on rehabilitation, conservation and education regarading marine mammals.

— $10.4 million to the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State.

— $20.8 million to construct mooring cells for barges along the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway.

— $2.8 million to revitalize Capitol Street in Jackson.

— $10 million for the port of Gulfport.

By far, the largest project slated for Mississippi is new construction on the existing federal prison site in Yazoo City.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has put out bids for a contract to build a new high-security penitentiary, a minimum-security prison camp and other structures at the current prison site. The facilities will be about 50,000 square meters and will house about 1,500 prisoners.

Funding for the national strategic petroleum reserve site in Richton was mostly left in place. Congress cut in half to $205 million what the Bush recommended spending on the reserve.

Cochran said he was pleased the spending bill will allow construction to begin at the site. Property purchases were completed last year and a revised environmental impact statement is now being conducted.

“At a time of economic uncertainty it is important for the United States to continue to make provisions for the future,” he said. “As long as our country remains dependent on foreign oil, we need to have oil reserves ready in case of natural or other disaster.”

It’s impossible to tell exactly how much money will be coming to Mississippi out of the spending bill. A nonpartisan budget watchdog group estimates, however, that the state is among the big winners when it comes to earmarks.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that both Cochran and Mississippi’s other senator, Roger Wicker, sit atop the heap when it comes to earmarks, the controversial practice of steering money to pet projects.

The group says Cochran is the congressional champion with $437.7 million in earmarks brought to the state both alone and in combination with lawmakers from other states. Wicker is No. 2 on the list at $391 million.

Mississippi is third overall in earmarks, the group’s research shows, with a total of $325 million, a figure that doesn’t include multistate funding.

“This is where Mississippi is always impressive,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Mississippi trails much larger California ($568.7 million) and Texas ($370 million) overall, but swamps them when earmarks are figured on a per capita basis. Mississippi is fourth in the country with $110.59 per resident accrued in earmarks. Alaska remains No. 1 at $209.71 per resident.

Overall, the group estimates there are $7.7 billion in earmarks in the $410 billion spending plan.

Ellis said the group uses Congress’ own definition of an earmark to reach its conclusions. But Margaret McPhillips, a spokeswoman for Cochran, said it’s impossible to tell how much money legislators steered toward the state in earmarks because the definition is debatable.

Wicker said he still feels the government spends too much money, but does not favor taking the right to choose what projects are approved away from Congress.