House & Senate Pass Final Bond Bill, End Session

Lawmakers on Monday passed a $456 million bond bill and wrapped up an 11-day special session shaped by House-Senate bickering and political power plays.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is expected to sign the bill, even though its price tag was about 15 percent higher than what he had hoped it would be.

Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson told his House colleagues that the bill includes projects designed to help most parts of the state.

"This is lots of money,'' said Watson, D-Hattiesburg. "Certainly, we have more needs out there than we have money available.''

The bill passed the House 106-2 and the Senate 48-2.

The governor controls the agendas of special sessions. Barbour had originally called lawmakers to Jackson starting Nov. 8 to consider economic-development plans only.

In a move led by the House, lawmakers negotiated a package that covers a host of other projects, from bridge repairs to college campus renovations.

Barbour said it was "in a spirit of compromise'' that he allowed consideration of the broader bill to prompt an end to what he originally hoped would be a one- or two-day session.

Barbour's $108 million plan passed the Senate on the session's opening day but stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee because some members wanted to consider a comprehensive bond package.

"This special session should have taken hours, but instead took weeks,'' Barbour said in a written statement Monday. "Holding good bills hostage to make political points is no way to do the people's business.''

The bill that passed Monday allows the state to borrow money for several economic-development projects, including $40 million to help Northrop Grumman expand shipyards in Pascagoula and Gulfport.

It also covers renovations, repairs or construction on college campuses; construction or repair of state agencies' buildings; repairs of local bridges; purchase of rural fire trucks; and technology improvements for the public television system.

The bill represents a new twist on state policy-making by wrapping two years of bond projects into a single bill. This year's regular legislative session ended in May without a bond bill because House and Senate leaders couldn't reach consensus then.

Officials say putting ideas for this year and next year into one bill could help smooth out what's expected to be a difficult budget-writing process during the 2005 regular legislative session, which starts Jan. 4.

Bond bills affect the state's budget process because lawmakers need to know how much money to set aside to retire long-term debt. Watson said the state will have to issue $48 million in bonds next year as the third installment of money to help Northrop Grumman with the shipyard expansions.

Watson said he's not ruling out considering other bond projects in 2005, but Barbour said the state should only issue bonds next year for job-creation programs.

The tab for the special session hit $432,593 on Monday. A half dozen negotiators met over the weekend and agreed on how much money the state should borrow.

Governments issue bonds to borrow money. Like a person who seeks a loan, a good credit rating affects interest rates. The state repays the bond debt over a number of years.

The only unresolved issue at the start of Monday was about which agency would oversee construction projects at three historically black universities. The projects are funded by $30 million in bonds as part of the college desegregation lawsuit.

Watson wanted the College Board to oversee how the $30 million is spent. Senators wanted the state Department of Finance and Administration to oversee contracts. DFA oversees most state construction contracts.

Negotiators agreed to have DFA oversee the contracts, but only after consulting with the College Board and the presidents of the three historically black universities.

The final version of the bill also changed minority set-aside provisions that Barbour didn't like. The governor last week threatened to veto a bill if it had mandatory contract set-asides, which he called "racial quotas.''

Negotiators put in provisions that mirror parts of existing state law and say up to 20 percent of contracts may be set aside.

The bill is Senate Bill 2010.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)