Pine Belt News, Hattiesburg

Barker, Senators Speak Out Against Proposed Metropolitan Statistical Area Change

By Haskel Burns

Several state and local officials – including mayor Toby Barker and Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith – are speaking out against the proposed change of the current definition of a Metropolitan Statistical Area that would eliminate that status from more than 140 cities across the country, including Hattiesburg.

If enacted as proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, the change would double the minimum population requirement for a MSA from 50,000 to 100,000. Officials say doing so could cause cities like Hattiesburg – with a population of slightly over 50,000 in its urbanized area – to receive a negative effect in federal funding and would hinder economic development opportunities. 

Wicker and Hyde-Smith are among a bipartisan group of 25 senators who sent a letter that encourages OMB acting director Rob Fairweather to abandon plans to change the definition.

“Though the consideration of non-statistical uses is not the priority of OMB, ignoring the unwritten effect that MSAs have on the decision-making process of our government would cause major disruptions with grant and entitlement programs, medical reimbursements, economic development, housing initiatives and more,” the letter states. “The MSA metric has become a critical tool so broadly used that changing it without consider its far-reaching impacts is short-sighted.

“We strongly encourage OMB to preserve the current MSA definition to provide greater certainty for our cities and ensure their MSA status remains in place.”

On March 23, Barker testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during a hearing titled “Driving the Road to Recovery: Rebuilding America’s Transportation Infrastructure.” In addition to speaking about the two large-scale infrastructure grants that will be used to build overpasses in Hattiesburg, Barker also discussed the negative effects of the proposed definition change.

“While it is a seemingly statistical change of definition, the implications of it are very broad,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns on whether that would affect our access to federal transportation grants, and entitlement grants, and other federal programs, some of which tie eligibility to being an MSA.”

It could also affect talent recruitment, as in the case of a recent 24/7 Wall Street study that ranked Hattiesburg No. 2 in the nation in job creation from February to November 2020.

“That was very good exposure for our community, and it put us on the map, with potential relocation and site selection by companies,” Barker said. “However, if we did not have Metropolitan Statistical Area status, we would have never made that list to begin with – we’d have never been highlighted for having that kind of job growth.

“So for Hattiesburg and 143 other communities, this rule change would take us out of having MSA status, and relegate us to having some sort of micropolitan, rural community. Think about that from a nationwide perspective: we have just under 400 MSAs right now, and you’re talking about taking away 144 of those. That’s a hit for a lot of states.”

Barker and other officials hope the OMB will decline to move forward with the move change. 

“If they do (move forward), then we’ll have to grapple with what the true effects of this might be, and potentially look for a legislative recourse to try and undo a potential rule change,” Barker said. “This is technical committee’s recommendation to OMB (to change the rule), with the thought of ‘the threshold of MSA hasn’t changed in decades.’ But I still don’t think that’s justification to change it.”