Thursday, October 27, 2005

Report from the Mississippi Senate
By Ralph Doxey

Special session addresses hurricane issues

The Mississippi Legislature recently concluded a two week special session called by Governor Haley Barbour to address Hurricane Katrina related issues.

One of the main objectives of the session was to enact legislation that would allow state and local entities affected by Katrina flexibility in their operations.

SB 2009, approved by the Governor, permits municipal and county governments to relocate their meetings if their permanent locations were damaged by the storm.

Also passed was HB 29, which allows the six most southern counties along with Forrest and Jones County to borrow 2 percent of the assessed value of all the taxable property within their lines or up to $250,000, whichever is greater. The purpose is to make available funds for working capital, debt service payments, and other expenditures. It will also help pay costs incurred by governing authorities as a result of the storm.

The Senate also moved to allow school districts to borrow increased amounts of money, if necessary, and extend their loan repayment times to give them access to increased funding immediately.

Any school district participating must first receive approval by the State Superintendent of Education that the school district received damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Another aim of the session was to assist local businesses in disaster areas in their attempts to become operational as quickly as possible. The “Mississippi Disaster Small Business Bridge Loan Act” was enacted to make short-term loan funds available to small businesses until other financing or insurance proceeds are obtained.

Under this act, the State Bond Commission can obtain a line of credit up to $25,000,000. The Mississippi Development Authority will administer the loans based on guidelines set forth by the act. The loans may range from $1,000 to $25,000 per business.

The Legislature also wanted to pass laws to help individuals affected by Hurricane Katrina. Numerous bills were authorized ranging from tax exemptions for recipients of disaster relief to waivers from delinquency penalties imposed under the privilege tax and motor vehicle tax laws. Extensions were also granted for filing state income tax returns for taxpayers in affected areas.

The most contentious issue of the session dealt with whether or not to allow casinos to come onshore in the coastal regions. Many felt this legislation was a critical component of the rebuilding of the coast. Others feared it might lead to inland gaming across the State.

In the end, the legislature approved HB 45 that allows Coast casinos to rebuild up to 800 feet on-shore. The language of the bill confines its actions to the three counties of the coast, Harrison, Hancock and Jackson. While state law allows gaming in these counties, only Harrison and Hancock currently issue gaming licenses under local law. I supported HB 45. With the massive damage done by Hurricane Katrina, I felt this legislation was critical to the economic recovery of our coastal region.

With the amendments to the gaming laws on the coast came an additional concern for the legislature, protecting the Tidelands Fund. Money generated in the past by leases to casinos went into this fund to help pay for marine research on the coast and to pay for piers, artificial reefs, boat ramps and other public and recreational projects. The fund collected about $7.5 million last year.

The plan approved will allow existing casinos that choose not to move or move to property contiguous to their existing properties to continue their lease payments into the Tidelands Trust Fund.

New casinos or casinos that choose to move to property not contiguous to their existing property will be assessed a sliding scale fee based on their capital investments in gaming facilities. That fee will be deposited into the newly created Public Trust Tidelands Assessments Fund. This fund was created to protect the money collected from being diverted or used for any other purpose than preserving and protecting the tidelands.

The Tidelands Fund and its new counterpart will be needed now more than ever to rebuild the recreation and tourism infrastructure Katrina destroyed.

On August 29, Hurricane Katrina changed the face of Mississippi forever. However, together we will work to rebuild a strong and viable Mississippi. This process will not be an easy nor a quick one. However, the legislation passed in the fifth special session of the year is a great step on that road to recovery.


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