CLEVELAND — With seven months left in his final term as governor, Phil Bryant says he will devote his energy into trying to get a massive pumping project approved to relieve the recurring flooding in the South Delta.

“If there is anything that I want to achieve in my last year of my last term, it’s getting those pumps in the Delta,” Bryant told a crowd of several hundred farmers, businesspeople and others from around the region who gathered for the annual meeting of Delta Council on the campus of Delta State University.

More than a half-million acres remain under water, half of it farmland, from Vicksburg to Yazoo City. The Mississippi River has been at flood stage for months and is not expected to drain significantly from the so-called Yazoo Backwater area until July at the earliest.  Bryant has called this year’s flood the worst in Mississippi since 1927, a natural disaster that has been etched indelibly into the state’s memory.

Delta Council meeting

David Abney, left, visits with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Abney paid Bryant several compliments in his remarks Friday, but the two differed on raising the fuel tax to fund the repair and maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges.

“This flood will last longer and, I fear, be more damaging,” Bryant said.

When the Mississippi River’s elevation gets too high, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes the Steele Bayou gate, the only outlet for water flowing down to the South Delta from the northern part of the Delta and points farther north. However, when the water in the South Delta can’t drain into the river, it backs up, inundating fields and homes and displacing wildlife.

A giant pumping station had been proposed to pump water from the backwater, over the levees and into the Mississippi River when the floodgate is closed, but the project was opposed by environmentalists and some members of Congress, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the $220 million project in 2008.

Woods Eastland, the outgoing president of Delta Council, said this year’s massive backwater flood, the eighth in the past decade in the region, “could and should have been prevented if not for the stroke of a pen,” referring to the EPA veto.

The Trump administration has agreed to review that decision, and Bryant said he is optimistic that the federal agency will reverse itself.

“I believe we’ve got a really good chance of turning that veto around, which has never been done before,” he said. “But this is a crisis of historic proportions, and they understand that.”

Bryant said he did not know when the EPA might make a determination. “I’m hoping it’s months rather than years,” he said.

The Republican governor, who is completing his second term and cannot succeed himself, was on hand for Friday’s meeting of the 19-county economic development organization to introduce its keynote speaker, David Abney, chairman and chief executive officer of United Parcel Service.

In his remarks, Abney endorsed raising Mississippi’s excise tax on fuel to maintain and repair the state’s roads and bridges. Delta Council, as reiterated by Eastland, has long advocated for such an increase, but it has not gotten any traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature or with Bryant.

UPS operates a fleet of 125,000 trucks in the United States, and every five minutes they are held up a day because of traffic congestion costs the company $114 million over a year’s time, Abney said.

“We absolutely will embrace an increase in fuel taxes. We call it user pay, user benefit.”

Although the remark drew applause from the audience, both Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves were unmoved in their opposition to raising the fuel tax, which has remained 18.4 cents per gallon since 1987.

When asked after the program whether what he heard from Abney and Eastland persuaded him to reconsider, Bryant said, “Not at all.

“We’ve got to find out what the federal government’s going to do. Let’s just say we added a gas tax here in Mississippi, and then the federal government decided to add one. You could raise 25 to 30 cents (per gallon) on the price of gasoline.”

Delta Council meeting

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, center, shows Hal Parker Jr., left, and Tom Gresham something on the Republican candidate for governor’s cellphone. Parker is president of the state College Board and Gresham the new president of Delta Council.

Reeves, who is running to replace Bryant and was also sitting on stage just a few feet from Friday’s speakers, was just as unflinching.

“I continue to oppose raising the gas tax, and I plan to continue to oppose it,” Reeves said. “There are a lot of good people in this room, and there’re obviously people who disagree with that position.”

Reeves cited the Legislature’s action during a 2018 special session that he claimed produced an extra $1.1 billion over five years for public infrastructure without a tax increase. Critics of the legislation, which uses tax revenue from internet sales as well as proceeds from an upcoming state lottery, say it will not produce as much new money as Reeves claims and, regardless, is inadequate to deal with the scope of deteriorating roads and bridges.

Abney stressed that the rapid pace of change in the world — brought on by technological innovation — requires a willingness to abandon the status quo and embrace new realities, such as the benefits of global trade.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States, he said. “If we are going to thrive in this digital world that we live in, we have to be able to reach these other markets.”

Abney did not criticize the trade wars the Trump administration has had with China, Mexico and other nations. He said UPS is encouraging these countries “to find a way to have free, fair trade that crosses both ways,” he said.

He warned, however, that if these differences are not worked out soon, U.S. farmers and manufacturers could find it difficult to regain the market share they had previously in these countries.

“The only thing I worry about is the longer this goes on, supply chains can switch from one country to another. Once those chains are made, there’s no guarantee that a free trade agreement or an agreement between the U.S. and China will cause all these supply chains to switch back to where they were.”

Abney, who grew up in Greenwood and graduated from Pillow Academy, said his upbringing in the Delta prepared him for the success he would later have at UPS, where he started 45 years ago loading trucks at night while attending college at Delta State.

He said the Delta bestowed on him a foundation that included a strong work ethic, a moral compass, social skills and competitiveness. “Things did not always come easy here, so you had to learn how to compete. You had to learn how to strive,” he said.

Growing up in Mississippi during the 1960s and 1970s also brought at least one handicap, he said. “You did have to unlearn the separate but equal that was prevailing back in those days.”

Abney said his visits to Mississippi, including seeing the racially diverse audience in front of him, have convinced him, though, of how much the state has progressed in race relations: “It just shows that we have come a long, long way.”

Friday’s meeting also marked the beginning of the yearlong tenure of Tom Gresham as president of Delta Council.

Gresham, president of Double Quick Inc. of Indianola, has been serving for the past 15 years as chairman of Delta Council’s Development Department. That role is now being assumed by Wade Litton, the Greenwood CEO of Wade Inc.  

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

 

 

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