Thursday, March 20, 2008
Report from the MS House of Representatives
By Reps. Tommy Woods, Kelvin Buck and Jack Gadd
A new start for an old program to improve Mississippi highways and bridges drew the green light from the House of Representatives during the 10th week of the 2008 legislative session.
Under HB 1624, $200 million in general obligation bonds would be issued to rehabilitate or replace almost 100 bridges located in 23 counties across the state that have been deemed deficient. Another $75 million will go to the construction and improvement of several major highways and the remaining $25 million will be used to finance highway improvements in and around the Toyota plant under construction in Northeast Mississippi. Already, five suppliers bringing 1,800 new jobs have been named for the Toyota plant, including one announced this week to be constructed at New Albany (more information below).
The new highway and bridge project would follow the more-publicized 1987 program that brought many miles of four-lane roads to the state. A second phase was added to that program in 1999 and the Vision 21 program was approved by the Legislature in 2002, but without a solid funding source. The new program will pick up those priority projects outlined in Vision 21 on state highways 15, 25, 43, 6 and 9. An increase in fuel taxes tied to the consumer price index would pay the debt for $100 million of the new bond issue, with the remaining $100 million to be paid back over a 10-year period.
This week was a deadline for revenue-generating and appropriations bills on the House floor. We will later be considering another large group of those types of bills that originated in the Senate.
We also debated and voted on general bills this week that had originated in the Senate. At the same time that body was considering general bills that earlier had passed the House of Representatives.
Among the general and “money bills” bills we considered and approved this week:
--SB 2176 to grant a 3 percent across-the-board pay for school teachers, rather than a 5-percent hike that passed the House in a previous bill. Teacher assistants would get a $500 pay raise and the teacher increment scale would go to 35 years. The teacher pay raises, as always, will be an integral part of final budgeting work for the new fiscal year that starts July 1. Those final negotiations on the next year’s budget are usually worked out during the final week of the session. Adjournment is schedule for April 19.
--SB 2011 extends to 24 months the validation that a particular home is a safe place for a child who is adopted from a foreign country.
--HB 23 gives a sales tax exemption for the purchase of nonperishable food items to certain charitable organizations. The bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
--HB 1506 would issue $5 million in bonds to repair dams in the state. The federal government also would put up some funds. More than 200 dams in 30 counties already have been rehabbed.
--HB 1656 would extend an economic development grant program for small cities and counties.
--SB 2866 making more non-violent prisoners eligible for the house arrest program.
--SB 2590 to enhance the nursing profession in the state, which currently is facing a severe shortage of qualified nurses. This bill would enact a one-year feasibility study and comprehensive plan for nursing schools in Mississippi.
The program would provide computerized interactive learning capabilities for all the schools, utilizing the pooled resources or mobile capability models from other states. The completed plan shall be developed and a report made to the 2009 Legislature by Dec. 1.
--SB 2974 to establish bonding and insurance requirements for the modular home industry, which has been gaining a stronger foothold in the state, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A companion bill, SB 2986, would initiate an installation inspection fee for the factory-built homes industry.
In floor action late last week, the full House approved these bills:
--SB 2571 to reform the state’s justice court system. By Jan. 1, 2012, all justice court judges will be required to satisfy additional requirements for the position, including a minimal competency exam and course at the State Judicial College. Those who fail the exam will be given a second chance at passage. Continued failure will cause the judge to have to vacate his or her office. The court’s jurisdictional limit would be raised from $2,500 to $3,500 under the bill, and the judges will be allowed to carry a firearm. A new pay scale will also be instituted.
--SB 2593 to add blood and urine tests to breath as implied consent tests under the state’s DUI laws.
Early in the 10th week, Gov. Barbour announced that Vuteq USA, Inc. will build its newest manufacturing facility in New Albany to supply the new Toyota plant. The $31 million plant is expected to open in 2009, employing 130 people. Vuteq will provide more than 50 injection molded parts as well as the assembly of the deckboard and assembly of various component parts to glass, such as the back window and front and rear door windows. Vuteq will begin production to coincide with the start-up of Toyota’s new Highlander SUV plant. Up to 500 people are expected to be employed by Vuteq to work at the Toyota facility.
“Vuteq USA’s decision to locate in New Albany further demonstrates Mississippi’s commitment to partner with automotive suppliers to create a winning situation for the company, the community in which it will locate, and the state,” Gov. Haley Barbour said. “I join New Albany and Union County in welcoming its newest corporate citizen and the new jobs that will be created by this fine company.”
In February 2007, Toyota announced that it would invest $1.3 billion in its eighth North American manufacturing facility in Blue Springs. Eventually, 2,000 direct jobs will be created once the plant is at full production capacity, and another 4,900 spin-off, or indirect jobs are expected to be created within five years of the plant’s opening.
Also this week on the new jobs front, the U.S. Government Printing Office announced it will open its second passport production plant at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County in a matter of weeks. “Stennis met all of our needs,” said Public Printer Bob Tapella, who heads the nation’s printing agency. Congress approved the plant last August. About 50 government workers will produce blank passport books for the State Department, which in turn personalizes them after checking out the applicants. The GPO charges the State Department $14.80 for each passport book.
On a health-related issue, Gov. Barbour continued to push his plan to create a Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange that could extend health benefits to thousands of small businesses and their employees. Nearly 134,000 Mississippians work for small businesses that do not offer employer-sponsored health insurance. He said creation of a Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange program would be a major step toward giving employees of small businesses more access to health insurance at more affordable rates. Under his proposal, the state-authorized health insurance exchange would function as a market clearinghouse for health insurance options, and participation would be entirely voluntary.
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