One Golden Triangle representative is hoping to do away with the Mississippi Department of Transportations’ elected commissioners.
The 535-page House Bill 877, filed by District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus), seeks to abolish the three-member Mississippi Transportation Commission and replace it with one appointed commissioner of transportation.
MDOT currently has three elected commissioners, each representing either the northern, central or southern portion of the state. The commission approves department policy and appoints MDOT’s executive director, who oversees the department’s operations.
Chism, in an interview with The Dispatch, said he thinks that model is outdated.
“Their biggest job, it appears to me, is appointing an executive director over MDOT,” Chism said. “They don’t have any direct supervisory responsibilities for various things. Yes, they answer constituent calls and constituent questions, but most of it is not direct responsibility.
“Mississippi is the only state in the nation that elects the transportation commission,” Chism said. “The only one. In all other states, it’s an appointed position, most of the time by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
HB 877 has been referred to the House Transportation Committee. If the bill becomes law, it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The commissioner of transportation would have administrative and operational supervision over MDOT.
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert of Starkville said he hasn’t heard concerns about the transportation commission’s set-up from any legislators, and the commission as a whole wasn’t aware of any issues until Chism filed his bill.
“Hiring the executive director is the least of our concerns,” Tagert said. “I think that illustrates a lack of understanding about what our department does. The commission is responsible for the budget and policy. As one of the commissioners who is elected and held responsible, I spend each and every day in front of taxpayers.
“For everything from potholes to interstate construction, the value of our system is that someone always has someone to hold responsible that they can contact, and that’s me,” he added.
Tagert has represented the northern district, which includes the Golden Triangle, since 2011.
Dick Hall represents the central district and Tom King represents the southern district.
Each commissioner’s salary is $78,000, a combined annual legislative expenditure of $234,000.
The governor would appoint the commissioner of transportation, with consent from the Senate, if the bill becomes law.
Chism also noted the state is one of only two in the nation, along with Rhode Island, where the Legislature doesn’t have direct control over how transportation money, regardless of source, is spent.
“We do have an appropriation bill,” he said. “It’s a pass-through bill that goes straight over to them and they decide how it’s spent. The only thing we can do is put a condition on a transportation bill — say that we want a particular like make a six-lane road out of a four-lane road and put that figure over there on it.”
Tagert, however, pointed out the Legislature can and does mandate projects for MDOT.
“Ultimate legislative control at the department of transportation already exists through the budget process,” he said. “Many of the projects we have worked on over the last decade or so are, in fact, legislatively-mandated projects.”
Tagert also noted that, efficiency-wise, Mississippi has been in the top 10 of the Reason Foundation’s annual rankings of transportation department efficacy for at least every year he’s held office.
He further expressed concern that removing the commission’s representation would negatively impact rural areas.
“I spend each and every day working with taxpayers on problems in their communities,” Tagert said. “I think that points to the value of having equal value and representation of rural and more populous areas. When you have centralized control or one individual, regardless of who that person is, typically what we see in other states is those resources are going to go to the more populous areas.”
Other legislators respond
District 38 Rep. Tyrone Ellis (D-Starkville) said he doesn’t have an issue with MDOT’s current setup, and said he hasn’t heard any outcry to change it. However, Ellis said he did introduce a similar bill during former governor William Winter’s tenure, but he called that attempt “premature.”
Ellis said he supports ways to put the most qualified people in positions like overseeing the state’s transportation. However, he said he wanted to know how much impact losing directly elected commissioners would have in terms of representation for Mississippians.
“If we’re going to have some reforms and be progressive, I’m all for it, but let it be inclusive,” he said. “Let someone else have a say in the matter.”
District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus) said he supports Chism’s bill “100 percent.” Smith said he believes the state should find a way — whether appointment or some other method — to ensure greater qualifications for transportation commissioners than “a pulse, being a registered voter and being 21 years of age.”
“I think the thought Mr. Chism has is let’s get our transportation system into the 21st century, maybe by having qualified commissioners who are selected differently,” he said. “I think it needs to be run by qualified individuals, and we are very lucky in the northern district to have an excellent transportation commissioner in Mike Tagert.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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