Budget delay puts Miss. road projects in jeopardy

Published 11:09 pm Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall says all state contracts for road construction could be terminated June 30 because of the state’s unresolved budget situation.

Hall said Wednesday that the state’s three commissioners voted to inform contractors of the termination as of close of business on Friday. He said the move will cost taxpayers because the projects will have to be re-advertised and rebid.

He said the commissioners’ attorneys have told them they have no authority “to spend a dime” after midnight June 30. That’s when the state’s current fiscal year ends.

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“We did not do this because we wanted to do this. We did this because we had absolutely no choice. You either have the authority or you don’t,” Hall said.

Mississippi Department of Transportation says there’s currently about $400-$500 million in projects under way. Hall said if the projects are terminated, the work will end in various states of completion.

“We’ve got a project there on I-20 (in Jackson), where we’ve got a bridge we’re trying to shore up. We’ll have to stop that project and that could be dangerous,” he said.

Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association, said many contractors are working on bridges that are in disrepair across the state. He said thousands of jobs would be lost.

“It’s far-reaching. You’ve got employees almost in every region of the state that’s going to be affected by this,” Pepper said.

Budget negotiators met Wednesday at the Capitol, trying to reach a compromise on a state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The lack of a deal has created problems in other programs and agencies.

Some of Mississippi’s 152 school districts have been unable to sign new contracts with teachers for the fall.

Nancy Loome, president of The Parents Campaign, an advocacy group for public education, said in an e-mail Wednesday that 34 school districts have not issued contracts. She’s urging to the group’s 33,000 members to contact legislators and “insist they end their bickering.”

“There is simply no excuse for this budget impasse. Negotiators have known for two months now the numbers and facts associated with the budget process,” Loome wrote. “The risks to our schools increase with every day that negotiators fail to agree.”

Much of the budget discussion has been about Medicaid, the government-funded health care program for Mississippi’s elderly, disabled and poor. Medicaid spokesman Francis Rullan said the program is facing a $32 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, which may become another issue lawmakers will have to tackle when Gov. Haley Barbour calls a special session.

The biggest disagreement between the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate is over how much to tax hospitals to help pay for the program.

Barbour wants a $90 million tax, money that could be used as a match to draw additional federal dollars into the state. The Senate’s proposal has hovered around $60 million, and the House has settled on $57 million. While the two chamber’s figures are relatively close, they’re at odds over including legislative language to prevent any further cuts to hospitals, specifically the amount the facilities are reimbursed for treating patients.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said small, rural hospitals will suffer if the Legislature approves a $90 million tax increase.

“Everybody knows that’s what happens,” Johnson said.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, argued that a hospital tax increase could be used to expand the Medicaid program, benefiting all program providers.

Barbour has said he won’t call the special session until there’s a compromise. Lawmakers missed the legislative deadlines during the regular session to adopt a budget.