By TED CARTER
Lawmakers are set to take yet another look at the effectiveness of Mississippi Department of Transportation’s spending, House Transportation Chairman Charles Busby says.
Busby does not think another evaluation is needed just two years after a report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, gave MDOT passing grades on its spending efficiency.
He nonetheless expects to be a member of the study group Speaker Philip Gunn has decided to appoint to review whether taxpayers are getting appropriate value for the dollars they put into transportation. The Pascagoula Republican who became transportation chair in late January also wants Gunn to expand the group beyond House members.
“I don’t know but I hope not,” Busby said of whether Gunn will limit committee membership to House members.
Gunn did not return phone calls seeking details on the committee makeup and its purpose.
Busby said he prefers that Gunn appoint the study committee “sooner rather than later.”
He hopes, he said, “We go ahead and do our work and establish our positions by early fall, say September.”
Busby said he thinks the push for another review of MDOT grew out of a report anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity circulated around the Capitol during the recent legislative session and may have diminished momentum in the House for getting new transportation spending passed. The report comparing the spending on road maintenance by South Carolina and Mississippi portrayed Mississippi as allocating far more per-mile than South Carolina.
What the report failed to note was that South Carolina’s Department of Transportation has responsibility for both state and local road systems, while Mississippi allocates road money to counties and cities as local aid, giving those jurisdictions control of how the money is spent, Busby said.
“It was not an-apples-to-apples comparison,” said Busby, an engineer by occupation.
“Americans for Prosperity cherry picked data that Mississippi had sufficient money to cover infrastructure,” he said.
The Mississippi Economic Council reached the same conclusions as Busby regarding the Americans for Prosperity report. “The numbers show what seemed to be wild and far-fetched differences,” said the MEC, which serves as the state’s Chamber of Commerce. “However, analysis of the data – to make sure the reports were comparing apples to apples – shows the wildly fluctuating numbers are due to incomparable data being used as the source for calculations.”
Using a valid comparison of data from South Carolina and Mississippi shows “Mississippi’s disbursements per mile are very much in line,” the MEC said in a memo to the Senate.
Busby said his late appointment as chair, which did not come until Jan. 28, left insufficient time to put together a case against claims of inefficient spending at MDOT.
Busby noted the 2014 PEER study “brought forth some minor things but nothing major.”
The PEER study should be the springboard for the study group’s work “if I have anything to do with it,” the transportation chairman said.
“I assume that is where we’ll start.”
The summary of the PEER report stated MDOT should improve its accountability and transparency, but has been proactive in taking steps in the right direction, including documenting some of its decision making processes and assessing the state’s needs regarding highway construction and maintenance.
MDOT, the PEER report stated, “conducts a well-developed assessment to show its transportation system needs; however, MDOT has not yet fully developed performance measures for all of its system goals so that system-wide progress can be tracked over time.
In terms of efficiency, MDOT has some positives, but “relative to other states, MDOT has room for improvement in measuring departmental efficiency.”
Some of the increased costs MDOT incurs comes from having to contract out a lot of its road and bridge design work. This is because low salaries the agency pays engineers make it difficult to hire and keep qualified engineers, PEER said.
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