One hurdle left for contested expansion of Jackson airport board

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State Sen. Josh Harkins

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood

A bill to regionalize the Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers airport got initial clearance from the Senate on Thursday and is one step away from heading to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he would sign the legislation into law.

The measure passed 31-15 after several Jackson-area Democrats spoke against changes made in the House. The bill was held over on a motion to reconsider, delaying it from going directly to Bryant.

In a statement, Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber called the vote a step to “take away the voice of Jackson taxpayers by stripping the operation, maintenance, and control of” the airport as well as Hawkins Field, which the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority also oversees.

“We stand ready to take all measures, in a court of law if necessary, to protect our citizens, their assets and their sacrifices,” Yarber said.

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, sponsored the legislation to replace the current five- member Jackson Municipal Airport Authority with a nine-member board whose members will be culled from the greater Jackson area, including Rankin, where the airport sits, and Madison counties.

Harkins has said because the airport serves the metro area, its board should be more representative of the tri-county area and that members should have aviation experience.

The legislation states that five of the nine members, selected by a combination of picks from the governor, lieutenant governor and Jackson officials, must come from the city of Jackson. Another amendment was added stating that the Legislature must sign off before the board sells any property, which Harkins, a real estate agent, said should dispel talk that he stands to profit from an airport board changeover.

“An airport is not set up to feed contractors. An airport is there to serve the citizens, and, at the end of the day, you obviously want the best people, the best service and the best price,” Harkins told reporters after the vote.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the legislation raised important questions about property rights

“With this bill, they are trampling the law. They are trampling local government simply because they have the votes to do so,” Blount said during floor debate.

Dr. Rosie Pridgen, chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

Jackson Municipal Airport Authority

Dr. Rosie Pridgen, chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

Rosie Pridgen, the chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, said the board plans to defend the airport, including possibly taking legal action.

“We think it’s wrong to have that kind of reach by a state,” Pridgen said. She added that the JMAA could team up with the city of Jackson, whose officials have also vowed to fight the airport bill should it become law.

“Without giving away the strategy, we’re looking at the constitutionality [of the legislation] and any other state claims,” Monica Joiner,  the Jackson city attorney, told Mississippi Today.

JMAA has hired Fred Banks, of the Phelps Dunbar law firm and a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, in anticipation of handling legal action. Banks declined to comment for this story.