Pine Belt legislators talk Hattiesburg sales tax, remaining issues this session

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Area lawmakers discussed legislative issues in a Monday morning forum that are still alive in the Capitol as the session nears a close.

Senator John Polk (R- Dist. 44), Representative Larry Byrd (R- Dist. 104) and Representative Percy Watson (D- Dist. 103) participated in the Area Development Partnership's second legislative forum of the year, and all three men said 2014 has been an interesting session.

"Each session has its own personality," said Watson, "but there appears to be more bills in conference than I've seen in a long time."

One topic of interest was the legislation surrounding the referendum for a Hattiesburg sales tax. All three legislators said they did not believe the measure would make it out of committee much less pass either chamber if put to a vote.

"I could just not render an opinion because I don't think it's going to happen, but I'll tell you that I do have an opinion," said Byrd. "I'm in a quandary. I think local folks best govern themselves, and I've heard it mentioned today that perhaps the Pine Belt should be able to vote on this, and that would be fine with me."

Byrd has mentioned on several occasions that he is in favor of Hattiesburg voters deciding for themselves if they want to be taxed, therefore being in favor of the referendum. On the other hand, Polk proposed the idea to have a regional vote since people that live outside of the Hattiesburg city limits would be affected by the sales tax.

"I think it's unfair that the city of Hattiesburg asks everyone who shops in the six or seven county area around it to help them pay for their sewer system," said Polk.

Watson, who introduced the legislation in the House, said it came at a time where the Hattiesburg city council was divided, which tells the state legislature that the citizens are divided as well.

"It's a good vehicle [sales tax]," said Watson, "but I doubt very seriously that it will pass with two weeks left in the session."

Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, however, said he will remain hopeful.

"Nothing is dead until it's dead," said DuPree on the legislation. "You're asking me to forecast what may happen at the last minute. I can't tell you how many bills at the last minute have passed the legislature. There are last minute bills all the time, last minute agreements that happen all the time."

Other topics of discussion on Monday's panel were teacher pay raises and funding for a state trooper school.

"I think there's a lot of difference between the House and the Senate version of the teacher pay raise bill," said Polk. "I think it possibly could die in conference committee, and I think the likelihood of it doing that may be larger than it coming out."

Byrd said he would like to see an across the board pay raise, but he is also not confident in the future of the bill.

"After listening to the Senate side of it, I'm not as optimistic as I was," said Byrd.

As for another trooper school in the state, Polk said a closer look at the department's leadership would be needed before the Senate would approve more funding.

"The leadership at the very top of the Department of Public Safety doesn't make what I would call the wisest decisions in the way they administer the agency and the way that they spend their money," explained Polk." It's hard for me to think positively about extra funding for a trooper school when in reality I'm not real sure the money's not there now if they would just make good decisions in the way they spend their money."

Byrd said the House and Senate are not in agreement on funding, but the need is great.

"When we were first told it was going to cost seven million dollars to put 50 more troopers on the road, we were concerned about that cost," said Byrd. "It's an expensive deal, but it's something that's needed."

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