Some House Republicans discuss MDOT change

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Changing the structure of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which is governed by a three-member elected commission, has been discussed during closed-door meetings by the House Republican Conference.

During a recent meeting of the conference, Republicans, who hold a House majority, discussed changing from an elected commission to some type of appointed system.

But House Judiciary A Committee Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said Wednesday nothing has been decided.

“We’re kind of looking at all our options,” said Baker, a key member of the House leadership.

The three incumbent Transportation commissioners – Mike Tagert in the Northern District, Dick Hall of the Central District and Tim King of Southern District – are all Republicans. But in recent years, Hall has been an outspoken advocate of a tax increase to help deal with statewide transportation needs. That has put him at odds with some state Republican Party leaders.

Baker said he is looking at various issues related to the Department of Transportation.

“I am not trying to be coy,” he said. “I have problems with the way the system is working, and I am looking for ways to make it better.”

An appointed vs. elective system has been discussed for years. In 2001 the House passed legislation to change to an appointed system to oversee MDOT, but it was killed in the Senate.

Mississippi is the only state that has a transportation system governed by an elected board.

Tagert, who won a special election in February 2011 to fill a vacancy and was re-elected to a full four-year term later that year, says he sees advantages to an elected commission.

“This is an issue I have heard discussed in the past,” he said. “The true advantage of our current system is that it provides checks and balances for one of our most important assets in terms of safety and economic development.

“It helps to make sure we don’t have all of the assets going to one area of the state. You have representation statewide. You have someone answerable to the people for one of our largest public assets.”

Tagert said he communicates on a regular basis with people in the Northern District.

“If people are not pleased with something I am doing, they do not hesitate in letting me know about it,” he said.

While the House did pass legislation in 2001 changing to appointed governance of MDOT, traditionally it has been difficult to get legislation through that chamber that would remove elected posts.

The Republican House leadership, for example, has been unsuccessful in efforts to pass legislation requiring all local school superintendents to be appointed.

“I am not for taking the right to vote away from people” said Rep. Donnie Bell, R-Fulton. “It is pretty simple. The system we have now may not be perfect, but it makes sure that all areas of the state have an opportunity to benefit.”

Rep. Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he wants to hear from his constituents, but in general he said, “Most folks like to vote on things.”

Rep. Jody Steverson, D-Ripley, said he would like to know more about how the appointed governance of the agency would be selected, but in general he is leery of changing to a system where north Mississippi might not have as much representation.

Under the current system, the elected commission sets policy and hires an executive director who oversees the day-to-day operations of the agency. The executive director is confirmed by the Senate.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com