MDOT chief still faces new confirmation in Senate

Published 1:23 am Sunday, April 5, 2009

One of Mississippi’s most powerful state agency directors faces a Senate confirmation hearing when lawmakers return to the Capitol in a few weeks.

Butch Brown has been executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation for eight years and has been confirmed twice. The first time was in 2001. The second was in 2005, after he had been fired in 2004 and rehired six weeks later.

His rehiring then came when one of three transportation commissioners retired and a new one was elected. The three commissioners constitute the Transportation Commission, the body that has authority over the department and the executive director.

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The attorney general’s office issued an opinion this year saying state law requires the MDOT director’s job to come up for confirmation every four years.

This year’s confirmation offers some potential for conflict.

Brown has clashed over the past several years with Dick Hall, the Central District transportation commissioner. Brown has kept his job because he’s supported by the other two commissioners.

“He manages by fear, and that’s not a management style I appreciate,” Hall said Friday.

Hall also said Brown is “too free with money” and “he’s got his people trained not to give me answers” to questions about spending.

In a separate interview, Brown responded that Hall is “a very unhappy person” and just wants to be in charge of the entire transportation department. Brown said Hall has been rude to MDOT employees.

“I think Dick Hall’s problem is he thinks he’s the only one at the parade who’s in step,” Brown said.

Brown is paid about $144,354 a year.

Bill Minor, the northern district transportation commissioner, wants Brown to be confirmed again. Minor said Brown is well connected in Washington and knows how to bring in federal money for Mississippi highways and bridges.

When a barge damaged a bridge on the Gulf Coast last month, Minor said Brown immediately started making calls to Washington to seek money for the repair.

“By 2:30 that afternoon, he had talked to the feds and had it totally funded,” Minor said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tom King, R-Petal, said Friday he’ll hold a confirmation hearing for Brown this month. If the committee approves the nomination, the full Senate will vote when lawmakers return to the Capitol in May or June to finish writing a state budget. They started a recess on Wednesday, after having been in session nearly three months.

Asked if there’s a chance Brown won’t be confirmed, King said: “I don’t know of any reason.”

Minor and Hall both served in the state Senate before being elected to the Transportation Commission. Hall was chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee and Minor led the Finance Committee.

Hall said Friday that he doesn’t know whether he’ll testify at Brown’s confirmation hearing. Earlier this year, Hall pushed for Brown to come up for confirmation again and the other two commissioners disagreed about Hall’s interpretation of the state law. Officials sought guidance and received the attorney general’s opinion that the director must be vetted by the Senate every four years.

“I want to emphasize: I have had my say and it is no longer my property,” Hall said of Brown’s nomination. “It is the property of the Senate.”

The nomination is Senate Nomination 76.