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BOBBY HARRISON: What happened to pre-special session transportation discussions?

BOBBY HARRISON

It has been about a month since the 2017 legislative session ended, yet, at least in public there has been no discussions between the House and Senate leadership on how to deal with the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

During the final days of the 2017 session, which ended March 29, the House members, prompted by their leadership, killed the budget bills for the Department of Transportation and the state Aid Road Program, which provides state funds for major local thoroughfares.

At the time, the House leaders, led by Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said the intent of their action was to force the Senate leadership to the table to discuss options to provide more funds for roads and bridges.

Then after that conversation, Gov. Phil Bryant would call a special session before the new fiscal year begins July 1 where the budget bills would be passed. If a consensus had been reached on how to provide more transportation funds, that would be part of the special session. If not, the regular budget bills would be approved in quick order.

That was the plan the House leadership put forth.

Perhaps, there has been all sorts of talking going on behind the scenes, but nary a word has been spoken publicly since the session ended about transportation.

What gives?

The House planning to spend a few weeks or even a couple of months where the focus could be solely on transportation issues seemed like a good idea. True, the issue already had received considerable publicity, but an effort to place more attention on transportation during what is essentially a news-dead period after the conclusion of the 2017 session seemed like a plan with merit.

At the time everyone seemed willing to talk – at least they said to the media they were. Lt. Gov Tate Reeves said he would be open to discussions about transportation funding. He even went as far as to say that the state not only had a problem with deteriorating roads and bridges, but also with other infrastructure, such as water and sewer.

Is there a reason to talk about those issues to see if a consensus can be found to address those problems in the upcoming special session?

By killing the budget bills in the regular session, the House said “yes” this issue of more funds for transportation is important enough to force a special session.

The problem of no public discussions is an ongoing one.

The current legislative leadership seldom, if ever, tackles problems in view of the public.

There was a time when committee meetings were held to explore potential problems. When those problems were identified, additional hearings would be held to listen to all affected by the problem before passing legislation.

Committee meetings of that sort are seldom held anymore. Instead, committee meetings are held for the sole purpose of passing legislation. In most instances, the Republican leadership with three-fifths super majorities in both chambers know they have the votes to pass most of their agenda so the committees simply meet to pass the legislation, not to hear from all sides of an issue.

They do not get their ideas from public discussions, but instead from conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.

When they cannot get the votes, such as to pass a transportation plan or a plan to rewrite the states education funding formula, they simply go behind closed doors, leaving everyone to guess what, if any, progress on the issue is being made.

Perhaps, the thinking of the leaders is to do otherwise would make them look weak – by airing their differences in public.

But in the past such efforts have led to two outcomes that most agree are good things – consensus and transparency.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol correspondent. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9939.

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