Senate rejects appointed transportation commission

Mississippi only state with appointed commissioners.

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - The Mississippi Senate by an overwhelming 37-8 vote Tuesday defeated an effort by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, to send to the governor a bill that would replace the three-member elected state Transportation Commission with an appointed board.

"I think it is a very sad day here because what has been going on forever will continue," said Bryan, who added he believes the Department of Transportation is "incompetent."

He said the Senate missed a rare opportunity "to get rid of the elected highway commission and join the rest of the nation."

Mississippi is the only state to elect the officials who oversee its Department of Transportation.

Earlier this session, the House - in a stunning move - voted 102-19 to replace the elected commissioners with a five-member board appointed by the governor. But the bill that removed the elected commission was "stripped" in the Senate Transportation Committee.

What was left of the original bill included provisions that require the Department of Transportation:

To develop estimates of the total costs of projects - from land acquisition to paving and opening the road;

To track and record changes and reasons for changes in the cost of projects; and

To file reports with the Legislature and the governor.

Bryan tried to defeat the Senate proposal and return to the original House bill that included the controversial proposal of replacing the elected commissioners. He said until the elected commission system was changed the Department of Transportation would continue to be inefficient.

But Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, defended the current system.

"Regardless of how it is done, it is not going to be a perfect system," Dearing said, pointing out instances of abuse in states with appointed commissioners.

Various senators said they thought allowing the governor to have the appointments would make the Department of Transportation less responsive to the people.

"My concern is the concentration of power put in the governor's office," said Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona. "I would not be afraid of this governor. I think he would do the right thing. I am talking about governors on down the line."

But Sen. Debbie Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, asked if it would not make more sense to have professional people - as required in the original House bill - to be in charge of the agency.

Had Bryan been successful, the proposal with the appointed commission would have gone straight to Gov. Ronnie Musgrove for his consideration. Musgrove had not said publicly that he supported an appointed transportation commission, but he had said he thinks the governor's office should at least have more say in the agency since it is so important to economic development efforts.

More than likely, House and Senate leaders now will meet to try to work out the differences in their respective efforts to reform the embattled Department of Transportation.

The Department of Transportation, overseen by the three elected commissioners, has come under criticism in recent years. Critics have said the agency is inefficient and does not complete highways in a timely manner.

The three commissioners have countered that studies indicate they oversee one of the most efficient Departments of Transportation in the nation.

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