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State cuts stall highway plans, Hall says in city

[5/27/04]Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said here Wednesday that state cuts to the Department of Transportation have put off several statewide and local projects indefinitely and will cost Mississippians 10,000 construction jobs.

Hall, a veteran legislator and former Republican delegate to the Senate representing Hinds County, pointed a sharp finger of blame at his former colleagues and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, saying they took $233 million in funding from MDOT. The commission has canceled all bids planned for June and rejected bids Tuesday because of those cuts, he said.

“People getting on the stump saying they’re not going to raise taxes, but promising people 8 percent pay raises,” Hall said. “That is just irresponsible.”

During the regular session that ended May 9, legislators passed a $3.7 billion budget that included 8 percent raises for public school teachers and raises of 20 to 22 percent for county officials. To shore up projected shortfalls, the Legislature took $133 million from MDOT funds earmarked to pay back bonds and $54 million from gaming revenue earmarked for roads in casino jurisdictions, Hall said.

Locally, that means a $10 million project to rehabilitate Interstate 20 in Vicksburg scheduled to begin next year and a $29 million project to replace this U.S. 61 North bridge over the Yazoo River scheduled for December have been put on hold.

Hall also said MDOT may not have enough money left in the budget to match federal grant programs for highway construction.

“You need to have a serious talk with your legislators because I don’t think they know what they did,” Hall told about 30 people at the Chamber of Commerce.

“He (Barbour) and the Senate leadership put this together,” he said.

Barbour’s spokesman Pete Smith said the cuts to MDOT’s budget were worked out in a compromise between the House and Senate leadership, but that it was needed because of current economic conditions in the state.

“The governor would have certainly done things different, but he is proud of the Legislature for making the tough decisions,” Smith said.

The raises for county officials received no state allocation and will cost Warren County an estimated $200,000 more in the budget starting Oct. 1. The teacher raises were the last in a multiyear plan and were funded only partially, using the MDOT and other reserves. School officials here have said they expect to raise local taxes $1.5 million to be able to operate during the budget year starting July 1.

Hall said other local projects that could be in danger because of the funding cuts include four-laning Mississippi 27 from Vicksburg to Crystal Springs, new highway lighting along I-20 through Vicksburg, the proposed Port Road from North Washington Street to U.S. 61 North and plans to widen I-20 through Vicksburg.