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Miss. Senate OKs some $420M in bond projects

Some lawmakers lined up in the Mississippi Senate on Wednesday to load a bill meant to fund repairs and maintenance at colleges, universities and state agencies with numerous hometown projects, pushing the proposed total to around $420 million.

However, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said many projects will be left out of the final version that will be presented to lawmakers before the session’s end.

“This bill is not coming back anywhere near that,” he said.

The Legislature approves a comprehensive bond bill nearly every session. Lawmakers also usually pass bond legislation for economic development.

The original Senate bill began at around $379 million, but it started increasing during a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday.

During floor debate Wednesday, the bill was amended several times to add more projects, including $2 million for an Ocean Springs drainage project; $1.5 million to create a Gulf Coast research laboratory fund and $200,000 to renovate and preserve the State Theater in McComb.

The bill, which passed 35-12, would provide some $229 million at the state’s community colleges, universities and state agencies.

The bill also includes $30 million for the state Department of Public Safety. Jon Kalahar, the agency’s spokesman, said $10 million will go toward the construction of a new state Crime Lab and medical examiner’s office in Rankin County.

Kalahar said DPS didn’t ask for the other $20 million, but that it is labeled as going toward a new headquarters building in Rankin County.

Kalahar said “we appreciate the generosity of lawmakers” and that the most pressing need was the crime lab.

The bill increased the amount of general obligation bonds for the Mississippi Incentive Financing Revolving Fund by $40 million. The Mississippi Development Authority uses the fund to offer incentives to attract industries to the state.

Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, spoke against the bond bill, saying the state’s debt is too high. It was $3.7 billion through Dec. 31, 2010, according to information from the state treasurer’s office.

Flowers said Mississippi shouldn’t borrow more money for improvement projects, but rather decide which ones would be funded with available resources.

“I know there’s something in here for you, all of you,” Flowers said. “Without a shadow of a doubt, we can’t afford what’s in this bond bill.”

Kirby said the bonds are needed to help the state’s economy.

“It’s an election year. You better think about what you’re deciding here,” Kirby said. “We’re creating jobs and we’re proud of it.”

The House earlier passed a $325 million bond bill. The two chambers will exchange proposals.

The House version included nearly $215.4 million for community colleges, universities and state agencies.

The bills are Senate Bill 3100 and House Bill 1546.