Senate bill would prevent MDOT Commissioner John Caldwell from holding up emergency funds

Jan. 25—JACKSON — The leader of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee is attempting to pass legislation that will prevent a single member of the Mississippi Transportation Commission from holding all local emergency road projects hostage.

Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, authored Senate Bill 2561, which would allow a simple majority of the three-member Transportation Commission to approve Emergency Road and Bridge Repair projects, instead of the current threshold requiring a unanimous vote of the commission.

"I don't know of any other process in this building where a unanimous vote is required to pass something," Branning told the Daily Journal.

The Mississippi Legislature last year set aside millions of dollars to go toward the emergency road and bridge fund. The fund flows through the Mississippi Department of Transportation, but the money only goes toward local projects in individual counties and municipalities.

John Caldwell, the state's northern district transportation commissioner, in June initially voted against the project list, virtually blocking the $100 million from being released to counties around the state.

The project list that Caldwell objected to was ranked by MDOT engineers and approved by an independent advisory group.

"The project list on the surface looks reasonable," Caldwell said at the time. "But it's a long list and a lot of variables. Essentially, I was only having a few working days in the middle of a chaotic week to review the list."

Caldwell, a Republican from DeSoto County, later changed his vote to approve the projects, and the money was released.

But the same scenario could happen in the future.

Caldwell so far is the only candidate to file paperwork to run for transportation commissioner in north Mississippi, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann previously told reporters that he wants to set money aside again during the 2023 legislative session for the Emergency Road and Bridge Repair fund.

But if Branning's legislation becomes law, it would mean the emergency road projects could be approved, even if Caldwell objects to the overall list.

When asked if the legislation was in response to Caldwell's June vote, Branning avoided answering the question directly.

"My focus is just making sure the funds and the program are working properly," she said.

Caldwell was at the Capitol on Tuesday and told the Daily Journal that he did not have any problems with Branning's bill. However, he believed it was targeting his initial dissenting vote last year that held the projects up.

"I'll let them do their thing, and I'll just do my thing," Caldwell said.

Branning has until Jan. 31 to advance the bill out of the committee she leads.