The bridge crisis, which Republican leaders seek to address this week during a special session, disproportionately affects majority black counties and counties that typically vote more with Democrats than Republicans, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.
Republicans, who enjoy supermajorities in both the House and Senate and hold the governor’s office, have been meeting privately to determine how and if to send state funds to counties that cannot afford to reopen bridges that have been closed since April.
No black or Democratic legislators have been at the negotiating table this summer, according to key Democratic and black legislative leaders.
To understand the disparate impacts of these closures, Mississippi Today combined a map of bridge closures, which the state maintains, with county-level racial demographic and poverty data from the census. To determine if a majority of voters in a county supported the Democratic or Republican candidate in a recent high-turnout election, we looked at the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Key findings of our analysis include:
• Ten of the 15 counties with the most bridge closures per 10,000 people are majority African American (only 25 of Mississippi’s 82 counties are majority African American).
• Six of the 10 counties with the most closed bridges overall have majority African American populations.
• Eleven of the 15 counties with the most bridge closures per 10,000 people voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election.
• Thirty-two of the 41 counties with the fewest closed bridges per 10,000 people voted Republican in 2016.
• Of the 15 Mississippi counties with no bridges closed, 13 voted Republican in 2016.
These data points are illustrated in the map below, where red and blue represent counties where a majority of voters supported Republican or Democratic candidates, respectively. The darker the shade of red or blue, the more people voted Republican or Democratic.
Yellow circles represent the number of bridge closures per 10,000 residents, with the smallest circle representing the fewest closed bridges and the largest circles signifying the most closures. According to our analysis, most larger yellow circles are located in blue- and, less so, light-pink-shaded counties.
Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said predominantly African American areas of Mississippi have historically been “short changed” when it comes to funding for infrastructure, maintenance and construction, health care and education.
“These issues are intimately interwoven. Under resourced communities like in the Delta have the highest rates of unemployment, the worst healthcare outcomes and facilities and lowest number of physicians per capita,” Williams-Barnes told Mississippi Today.
“They also have the worst roads and highest percentage of bridges that are out of spec,” Williams-Barnes continued. “It starts with infrastructure.”
While the bridge crisis disproportionately affects African Americans in Mississippi, no black legislators have been inside negotiating rooms this spring and summer.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has kept him updated on the negotiations, but Simmons says he has not been in any meetings between Senate leadership, House leadership, and governor’s office staff since the regular session ended in March.
Simmons, who is black, shared Williams-Barnes’ assessment about African American communities being overlooked on funding for key government services. But he also said the Senate has diverted plenty of state money for infrastructure to those same communities through controversial legislative earmarks the past few years.
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“I can go down a long list of things that I’d say the counties have a majority (black) population – whether you’re talking about (human services), health, corrections, transportation – seem to have not gotten its fair share,” Simmons said. “When you look at all the major, major problems, they have a deficit.”
“But when it comes to the problem of transportation, I would say over the past six years we have seen more funding going into special projects in rural counties and counties with majority (black) populations,” Simmons said.
As of this week, close to 500 county-owned bridges across the state remain closed after federal inspectors deemed them unsafe earlier this year and Gov. Phil Bryant issued an unprecedented state of emergency.
Many of those counties – especially rural counties with shrinking tax bases and no new sources of revenue – cannot afford the costly repairs necessary to reopen the bridges, spurring major concerns about safety, commerce, and government spending.
Russell Brooks, a Chickasaw County supervisor and president of the minority caucus of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, does not believe the roots of the poor condition of bridges in high poverty, black areas are because of financial mismanagement by African American Democrats.
“You have to remember, a lot of the bridges we’re talking about were built 50, 60 years ago,” said Brooks, who is black. “How many black people do you think were on boards of supervisors back then? Some counties are still trying to get roads and bridges in black communities added to the State Aid system.”
“We have always been the underserved community,” Brooks continued, referring to African Americans.
As Republicans work behind closed doors to address the bridge crisis, Democratic strongholds, which track closely along racial lines in the state, are also disproportionately affected by the closures, the analysis finds.
Of the 26 counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, 17 are in the top half of counties with most closed bridges per 10,000 people in the state. Eleven of the top 15 counties with most closed bridges per 10,000 people voted Democratic in 2016.
Of the just 15 counties with no closed bridges, 13 of them voted Republican in 2016.
“The Speaker has an open door policy,” said Meg Annison, communications director for Speaker Gunn. “Republicans and Democrats both have the ability to share ideas with him regarding any matter. All members have every right to express their ideas to the Speaker and the chairs of committees. They can gather information from agency heads, attend all committee meetings, voice their views in meetings, offer amendments on the House floor and debate on the House floor. There is nothing that prevents any member from gaining information, expressing views and developing policy.”
In addition to race and politics, a county’s poverty also has a strong correlation to the number of bridges closed; the top 37 counties, in terms of bridge closures per 10,000 residents, all have poverty rates higher than the state rate of 22.3 percent.
The map below shows the concentration of closed bridges per 10,000, symbolized by yellow circles, as well as poverty rates and heavily African American counties. Our analysis shows that larger yellow circles are found in counties with higher poverty and larger African American populations (click in the upper right corner to toggle between race and poverty data).
“If Mississippi is to move forward, it will require input and engagement from all citizens throughout the state,” Williams-Barnes said. “We certainly would have liked to have seen these private pre-session negotiations going on with our input. We implore the leadership to focus on rural and high poverty areas that have been neglected for far too long.”
A request for comment from the office of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was not returned for this story.
A note on methodology: Data for bridge closures around the state comes from the Office of State Aid, which last updated its list on August 22. To account for varying populations across counties, this analysis calculated rates of closed bridges per 10,000 residents.
Election data comes from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. Poverty and racial demographic data come from the United States Census Bureau’s website, and specifically from the 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.