Love him or hate him for it, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves stays true to his autocratic ways. He dropped his complex $1.1 billion “Building Roads, Improving Development, and Growing the Economy (BRIDGE) Act” on the Senate one day last week and passed it the next.
He also stuck in the bill provisions that would allow him expanded autocratic power as Mississippi’s next governor. In addition to the imaginative funding it would provide, the bill would shift certain authorities from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) to the governor.
The big money in the bill, estimated at $800 million, comes mostly from diverting money from the state rainy day fund into a new “Economic Development and Bridge Repair Fund” under the control of the governor, not MDOT. The governor would get to choose which bridges to be repaired from a list prepared by the State Aid Engineer, but would have total discretion to choose projects that “support economic development.”
Notably, most of the money going into the fund would not be available to spend until the next governor takes office.
There is an extraordinary policy provision in the bill that would shift from MDOT to the governor the approval authority for all future right-of-way acquisitions for the state highway program.
Reeves’ bill also creates another new fund called the “Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund.” The governor would control expenditures from this fund, too. Initial state funding would be limited to revenues generated by a new tax on electric and hybrid vehicles. But the fund could potentially access millions from the $1.5 trillion infrastructure program proposed by President Donald Trump.
Altogether, this could provide extraordinary discretionary money and power for the next governor.
Reeves’ five-year funding scheme is imaginary not only because of the many existing sources he taps to capture funds, but also because much of it may be illusory. The projected rainy day fund transfers depend on annual state revenues exceeding expenditures by 2 percent of the total budget. That hasn’t happened in recent years.
There is no certainty that President Trump’s turn-$200-billion-into-$1.5-trillion infrastructure scheme will come true either. Even if it does, it may not be suitable for Mississippi to do much. As proposed, states would have to match each federal dollar four-to-one.
Also, another $125 million projected to fund a new Municipal Sales Tax Diversion Infrastructure Fund will only occur in years when state sales tax collections exceed the prior year’s by 1 percent. That’s another iffy prospect. Growing online sales and retail store closures have been slowing sales tax growth. Sales tax collections for 2017 were flat compared to 2016.
It will be interesting to see how the House and its burgeoning autocratic leader, Speaker Philip Gunn, react. Will they want to put so much money and power into the hands of the next governor (Reeves is the well-funded favorite)? Will they want to sign on to a $1.1 billion scheme that may actually generate far less money?
Still and all, it could happen. All the money could come true, Reeves could become governor, and infrastructure spending bliss could descend upon the parts of Mississippi he favors.
Hard to bet against autocrats these days.
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.