As a U.S. Marine, Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert is not afraid of a fight.
However, when the fight is unnecessary and unprincipled, as he sees it, the normally mild-mannered Tagert takes off the gloves.
In an editorial board meeting with the DeSoto Times-Tribune on Wednesday, Tagert called a plan by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Mississippi State Senate to take control of potentially more than a billion dollars in transportation funds "a power grab."
The bill, which passed the Mississippi State Senate with lightning speed is now headed to the Mississippi House of Representatives where Tagert hopes is a more deliberative body when it comes to basically restructuring financial control and oversight of transportation funds in Mississippi for roads, highways and bridges and other infrastructure.
Last week, Reeves unveiled his $1.1 billion BRIDGE Act, which stands for "Building Roads, Improving Development and Growing the Economy."
The bill, which shifts certain authorities from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to the governor, purports to divert more than $800 million from the state's rainy day fund into a new "Economic Development and Bridge Repair Fund" under control of the governor, be it Bryant, who is term-limited to two terms by the state Constitution, or potentially Reeves should he run and become elected.
Tagert points out the state has had to rob the state's rainy day fund on three occasions during the recent past in order to balance the state budget, which, by law, must be done.
Tagert said as a conservative, depleting reserve funds which need to be set aside as a result of good accounting practices does not make good sense.
The rainy day fund, established during the administration of the late Gov. Kirk Fordice, depends upon annual state revenues exceeding expenditures by two-percent of the total budget. That rosy scenario of projected growth has not occurred in several years.
Another new fund called the "Strategic Infrastructure Investment Fund" would be funded initially by a new tax on electric and hybrid vehicles, a directive seen by many to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The fund could be a conduit by which Mississippi could access future federal funds proposed as part of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program proposed by President Donald Trump.
Tagert said setting up a brand new bureaucracy also flies in the face of conservative government because it creates unnecessary, additional layers of government.
"This is almost as if you were creating a separate department of transportation without the expertise to run it," Tagert said. "Conservatives are against bureaucracy the last time I checked," Tagert said. "As a conservative, I was always under the impression we wanted to create less laws and levels of government."
Tagert said he is mincing no words in what he calls a "power grab" by state officials to usurp MDOT oversight, but more importantly local control by the citizens, who elect the state's transportation commissioners.
"It's a power grab — I'll call it what it is," Tagert said. "But what I like to focus on is why it's detrimental. What we want to do — personalities aside — is to be talking about whether it is good public policy."
Tagert said the Transportation Commission was set up for a reason.
"We have a representative system from all parts of the state," Tagert said. "We provide for a lot of constituents' service that I don't think they would otherwise get."
Tagert said he has spent the past few days reading the 300-page BRIDGE Act bill.
"It took a couple of days to get all the way through it," Tagert said. "It's very repetitive."
In essence, Tagert hopes the Mississippi House will stop the runaway train of support for the BRIDGE Act legislation before it eventually derails oversight of the state's transportation system.
"We will work with both chambers," Tagert said.
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.