OPINION: State transportation chief asks for funding extension

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Department of Transportation is asking legislators to give the agency the authority to continue to operate if a state budget agreement is not reached by July 1, the start of a new fiscal year.
Last year, the Legislature reached and passed a budget accord literally minutes before the new fiscal year began at midnight. If that agreement had not been reached, Attorney General Jim Hood had ruled most of state government would have to shut down except for a few essential services spelled out in the Constitution.
The Department of Transportation would have been one of those agencies shutting down. Larry “Butch” Brown, executive director of the Department of Transportation, had said that because of complex federal rules, a shutdown would require the rebidding of construction contracts, causing long delays and costing millions of dollars.
To avoid that possibility, Brown is asking the Legislature to give his agency the authority to continue operations at this year’s funding level if the current budget problems result in a prolonged stalemate that stretches into the next fiscal year.
Brown stressed that the legislation would not be needed unless that stalemate occurs. All hope that does not occur, but anything is possible during the current unprecedented budget woes caused by a prolonged slowdown in state tax collections.
During a committee meeting, some legislators asked if Brown could live with legislation that allowed contract work to continue to prevent any delays and added costs in highway construction. And on top of that, also allow the department’s emergency personnel, who might be needed to make repairs to ensure public safety, to continue to work.
But Brown balked at having to decide who would be the emergency personnel needed to ensure the public safety and who would not be.
It was not clear Tuesday what the fate of the legislation would be.
But it is clear that the Department of Transportation is unique in state government.
It is governed by three elected commissioners. Mississippi is the only state to elect the governing authority of its transportation department.
The Department of Transportation also has what is known as a dedicated state funding source. It is funded almost solely by an 18.5-cent-per gallon motor fuel tax that is used to draw down federal funds.
All other major agencies are funded through the state general fund, which is supported through the sales tax, income tax, corporate taxes and casino taxes among others. The current budget woes are the result of state general fund revenue coming in at historically low levels.
The only way the Department of Transportation is involved in the budget battle is that on occasion the Legislature, especially in recent years, has taken money dedicated to the agency to prop up general fund agencies.
And Transportation gets caught up in budget battles because generally the Legislature does not pass budgets to fund any agency until an overall budget agreement is reached.
Through the years, the Department of Transportation at times has almost tried to operate outside the purview of the Legislature. For instance, a couple of years ago the Transportation Commission tried to reappoint Brown as executive director without Senate approval.
A group of senators, led by Hob Bryan, D-Amory, sought an opinion from the attorney general, who found that the law is clear that Brown had to have Senate approval to serve as executive director.
Two of the commissioners are in a constant battle with a third. The Ethics Commission has found that the commissioners violated the open meetings law by discussing business during a dinner meeting where a third commissioner was not invited.
Years ago the Legislature passed the motor fuel tax and dedicated it to highway construction. That made sense then and it makes sense now.
But Mississippi is in perhaps the worse budget situation since the Great Depression.
If a budget agreement is not reached by July 1, the attorney general’s office has ruled that Highway Patrol troopers will be laid off and cannot provide for the public safety. Numerous other vital services will shut down, such as the departments of Health, Medicaid and many others.
The Legislature must decide whether it will be business as usual at the Department of Transportation while the rest of state government comes to a mind-numbing halt.
That is one of many tough policy decisions coming to light because of the current budget chaos.

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.