The Mississippi legislature is learning a hard lesson early in the 2020 legislative session: it’s better to avoid a crisis before it happens by solving the problem at the root.
That’s true in business, everyday life and, especially, in governing. We acknowledge some steps have been taken in recent sessions to improve our roads and bridges, but if a long term, comprehensive plan is not addressed soon, Mississippi’s transportation system will face a full-blown crisis. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the numbers:
- 56% of all major roads and highways are in poor condition.
- Mississippians pay at least $820 per year in vehicle operating costs associated with bad roads and bridges.
- Mississippi drivers spend 5 vacation days per year sitting in traffic in major metro areas.
- Our state suffers 1.69 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, the second-highest average in the nation.
The current state of the prison system is a prime example of a critical need that we don’t want our roads and bridges to emulate. In 2015, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Christopher Epps pleaded with legislators for more prison guards and higher pay. He pointed out that his undermanned workforce was only sufficient “as long as we don’t have an uprising.” Commissioner Epps asked for $11 million in funding to address the issue. Instead, the legislature handed him a $12 million cut to his budget.
The prison crisis has been at least 25 years in the making. Even more recently, former MDOC Commissioner Patricia Hall asked for more funds in January 2019, when she warned the House Appropriations Subcommittee, “I’m almost at capacity in my facilities. That’s not a good place for us to be in in the state of Mississippi.” Manisa Ragsdale, a lieutenant with the corrections department further explained, “One of the main concerns that I see happening every day is low staffing. If we were to have a major incident to happen, there is no one there to respond to the incidents.” Even with these warnings, lawmakers ignored the pleas allowing the current crisis to unfold.
Our state is now seeing the consequences of this cut. That uprising Commissioner Epps warned of is now happening in prisons all over the state. This month, two of the state’s largest prisons had major uprisings, what corrections officers are calling ‘major disturbances’ between gangs. Up to this point, 12 inmates have died in Mississippi prisons.
This crisis could have been avoided if the proper funding was provided in 2015 when Commissioner Epps asked for just $11 million. Now MDOC needs a $67 million dollar budget increase to hire more than 800 guards and address this life-or-death issue.
Today our roads and bridges are in a similar spot to the prison system in 2015.
Bill Crawford with the Mississippi Business Journal said it best: “Today the crisis is prisons, tomorrow it will be PERS, health care, the plight of rural communities, roads and bridges, or higher education.” Waiting for a bridge to collapse or for dangerous roads to cause more car accidents is not a reasonable way to act. Tackling the problem with a long-term, comprehensive solution now will pay off ten-fold in the long run. Not addressing a crisis head-on leads to possible deaths and panic – and waiting to address a known crisis will only prove costlier not only in the near future but generations to come.
Demand a plan from your lawmaker to make sure our roads and bridges don’t end in crisis.