February 22, 2018 11:24:44 AM
For three years, the Mississippi Legislature has delayed providing funds for repairing the state's roads and bridges.
The delay followed a December 2014 report from the Mississippi Economic Council that revealed more than 500 state bridges were in substandard condition and 5,000 miles of state-maintained roads were in need of repaving.
On Tuesday, the Mississippi Senate acted, but Mike Tagert, Northern District commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, said the Senate's plan will create more problems than it proposes to solve.
The Senate bill, which passed by a 34-14 vote, calls for $1.15 billion in spending on roads/bridges and water/sewer infrastructure repair over five years. The initial MEC report said it would cost $3.75 billion to adequately address the roads/bridges deficiencies.
"I'm not pleased about it," Tagert said. "This is going to take money away from the department of transportation. It's going to do nothing for the Golden Triangle or the Northern District."
Under the Senate plan, $600 million of the funds would be generated by diverting the set-aside of "rainy day" funds -- 2 percent of the state's budgeted revenue -- to be used for the program. But the state's revenue has fallen below projections in five of the last eight years, and Gov. Phil Bryant has had to cut budgets for state agencies seven times over the past three years to balance the budget.
"The future of the new money for their plan is questionable." Tagert said. "It depends on what the economy does. We don't have a crystal ball. There's no guarantee that the money will be there."
Another $125 million under the Senate plan would come from the MDOT budget -- $25 million per year for five years.
The bill's authors say it's only a small diversion from MDOT's $1.2 billion annual budget, but Tagert said that's misleading.
"What they don't say is that the state provides $450 million of that budget, so taking $25 million is a 6-percent cut," Tagert said. "This bill represents a significant cut to our maintenance program. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Tagert said most troubling of all was the language in the bill that takes away the decision-making authority from the commission, its engineers and its three elected commissioners.
"Under the plan, MDOT's engineers would submit a list of needed repairs to the governor's office, which along with the Mississippi Development Authority and a panel of its choosing would determine which roads and bridges are repaired first.
"That's a real problem," Tagert said. "There was an attempt before the Senate voted to put in some language that said bridges would be repaired based on their load ratings. In other words, the worst would be repaired first.
"But that got shot down," he added. "What will the priorities be? If that's any indication, it won't be based on need."
Tagert also bristled at the language in the bill requiring MDOT to spend 95 percent of its budget on roads/bridges repair and maintenance, which he felt was deliberately deceiving.
"We already spent 95 percent of our budget on that," he said. "Out of our budget, $979 million goes to that already. The bill is misleading, maybe to justify what they are doing."
Younger: 'We've got to get off our ass'
Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D, West Point) voted against the bill.
"We were told it was a $1 billion project, but the first portion of the bill summary includes projects that are already in place. Then you move down a little further and it shows that $125 million will be taken from MDOT over a five-year period. ... It's just moving money around. And taking away money from existing budgets doesn't help.
"These agencies are already suffering," she added. "How is it that anyone who considered themselves to be fiscally responsible can support this? I can't."
Sen. Chuck Younger (R, Columbus) said he voted for the bill but was less than enthusiastic about what it will do.
"By the time it was my time to vote, it was already settled," said Younger, who cast the last vote in the Senate, where the votes are cast alphabetically. "I went with (party) leadership on this because, hell, we've got to do something. We've been talking about this for three years now. We've got to get off our ass and get this thing going."
Younger said he hopes the bill will be changed as it moves to the house to provide new sources of revenue for funding.
"I know raising taxes or even rolling back some of those tax cuts we've made are dirty words for Republicans, but I don't see how we're really going to fix this problem without new revenue," Younger said. "I'd like to see a state lottery to fund this. I haven't given up hope on that."
Tagert agreed on the need for new revenue to address the roads/bridges problem and he is hopeful the House will address that.
Rep. Jeff Smith (R, Columbus) spoke briefly on the subject between meetings Thursday.
"I agree that the Senate bill's math doesn't work," he said. "However, it seems the Senate has come up with a starting point and (the House) is in the process of trying to come up with some alternatives or options."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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