As Rep. Noah Sanford, R-Collins, sat at his desk during the August special session scanning a list of earmarked infrastructure projects that totaled $111 million, he realized none of the 128 projects would benefit his district.
Sanford, serving in his first term in the Mississippi House of Representatives, dug a little deeper and realized he wasn’t alone: 19 of the state’s 82 counties didn’t receive a dime of the special legislative money. When floor debate on the bill began, Sanford held a pink slip in the air signaling to Speaker Philip Gunn his intention to introduce an amendment.
Shortly after introducing the amendment, to provide the remaining 19 counties some funding from the large pot, Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, rose with a motion to kill it.
Sanford was incensed.
“We are fixing to spend $750 million and we can’t have a debate on it? That makes no sense, and that’s not why any of us were sent up here,” Sanford said to Foster. “If your county (DeSoto) didn’t have anything, I’d be willing to help you. Luckily, you do have something. Luckily, you have a lot of Republican primary voters in your county. Luckily, so does the Coast. Luckily, so do Rankin and Madison counties. It’s time to spread this around. If we’re going to have to pass this, all of us should get a present.”
Sanford’s impassioned effort was ultimately rejected.
A Mississippi Today analysis of the 128 earmarked projects approved during the August special session produced no clear pattern of how and why the projects were selected. When asked, legislative leaders who oversaw the process offered no explanation, leaving lawmakers questioning whether back-room dealing influenced the process.
The projects ranged from $8 million for new roads in both Madison and Rankin counties, in suburban Jackson, to $500,000 for street repairs in various towns to repairing a handful of the more than 500 closed county bridges across the state. Leaders also plugged state funding into a handful of private endeavors, such as restoring an abandoned church in Amory for community use and for private Tougaloo College in Jackson.
“The individual projects that were funded in all regions of our state were decided based upon months and months of discussion and negotiation by senators, representatives, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, the governor, the speaker of the House, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves,” said Laura Hipp, spokeswoman for Reeves.
When asked how leaders decided on which projects to include, Meg Annison, a Gunn spokeswoman, said individual members made requests of House leaders.
She said in this instance, Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, was the House member handling the legislation. Lamar, who is vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and part of Gunn’s close circle of advisers, received four projects totaling $4 million for his district.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond when asked about his office’s role in selecting the earmarks.
All of the 19 counties that received no earmarks were rural.
Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, said he was disappointed that his home county of Tishomingo did not receive a project, but said he was pleased that the town of Farmington in Alcorn County, also in his district, received funds for sewer improvements.
Carpenter said all counties should have received a project.
“I was pleased about Farmington, but it was kind of frustrating that there were 19 counties that did not get a project,” he said.
He said he hopes those counties are priorities in the upcoming legislative session.
Incidentally, three of the counties that received no projects – Covington, Simpson and Jeff Davis – are all represented by Sanford.
It is not uncommon for the Mississippi Legislature to provide state funds for local projects. But the number of special projects approved in the special session was unusually high.
Generally, the projects are funded through the sale of bonds that the state normally pays off over a 20 year period.
During the special session, the Legislature approved $50 million in bonds to pay for a portion of the projects, and used $61 million in reserves to fund the remainder. The legislation does not specify what projects are financed through bond debt and which are funded through cash reserves.
The cash reserves are from a federal court settlement, which Attorney General Jim Hood obtained through litigation against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and catastrophic oil spill.
The state is slated to garner an additional $600 million ($40 million per year) during the next 15 years. Under the legislation passed during the special session, $30 million of those funds each year will be designated for projects for the six southernmost counties, and $10 million will be used for projects in the rest of the state.
The Legislature will have final say on what projects will receive the funds – giving House and Senate members another source of revenue to fund earmarks.
Some legislators, such as Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, contended the funds should be divided equally among all the counties based on criteria like population, and that local officials should decide how to expend the funds. But legislative leaders sometime have the option to offer earmarks as a way to keep members in line or win votes on controversial pieces of legislation.
During the special session, speculation swirled that the earmarks would be available to legislators who voted for a lottery, which the governor supported. Although no legislator acknowledged making any deals to vote for the lottery, several state representatives who switched from their original no votes on the lottery to yes ultimately received earmarked projects.
Rep. Doug McLeod, R-Lucedale, was originally a no vote on the lottery but later changed his vote to yes, helping secure its passage. McLeod’s district received $350,000 for the repair and repaving in Lucedale at the intersection of Scott Road and state Highway 26. McLeod owns a tire shop on Highway 26 about a mile northeast of the intersection.
“I wasn’t going to jeopardize our funding on roads, something so important,” McLeod told Mississippi Today in August when asked about his change of heart. “Seven out of 10 in my district want a lottery anyway. I’m not generally opposed to a lottery, I didn’t like the process of some of the stuff in the bill.”
Rep. Jody Steverson, R-Ripley, who originally was a no vote on the lottery but ultimately voted for it, received some earmarks for his home county of Tippah. But sources say Sen. Rita Potts Park, R-Corinth, who also represents Tippah and was a no vote on the lottery, played a key role in ascertaining some of the Tippah earmarks. Steverson said Ripley was previously scheduled to receive funds – $500,000 for street repair – prior to the lottery vote.
But many lawmakers who voted against the lottery all along still received earmarks for their districts.
Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, who voted against the lottery (as did Parks in the Senate) can boast that they garnered funds for their hometown of Corinth.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who also was a lottery opponent and is regularly one of the most vocal opponents of many of the Lt. Gov. Reeves’ policies, was able to garner funds to renovate for community use the vacant First Christian Church of Amory.
Mississippi Today reported during the special session that staffers for Gov. Phil Bryant made it clear he would not allow consideration of the BP legislation until the lottery proposal was approved during the special session. And it was made clear, including during debate on the House floor, that the BP legislation would include numerous special projects or earmarks.
In addition, it became obvious that the earmarks would be used as enticement to get legislators to agree to provide 75 percent of the future BP settlement funds to the Gulf Coast counties. Many legislators had argued that the rest of the state should receive a larger slice of the BP money since the funds had been designated to compensate the entire state for sales tax revenue lost as a result of the oil spill.
In 2016, there also was large number of earmarks approved throughout the state. In 2016 as that bond bill was passed, House and Senate leaders were trying to garner enough votes to pass a controversial tax cut. That tax cut – the largest in state history – did pass on the same day the bond bill passed.