Jackson officials reacted strongly Wednesday against major changes in a bill creating a Capitol Complex before the measure died as the Senate adjourned.
The changes would have altered the funding plan, remove Jackson City Council approval of the complex board’s plans and create a new judge for the complex area. The House voted to send the bill back to committee, which was expected to effectively kill the bill. The Senate took no action on the revised bill before it adjourned.
The original bill created a fund for the new district that would receive a projected $21 million, made up of 12.5% of the municipality’s annual sales tax revenue, private donations, and other money appropriated by the legislature.
The revised bill would have removed the extra infusion of sales tax funds and provides no direct appropriation, raising questions about the funding for infrastructure improvements in the Capitol area.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Pearl River, who signed off on the changes as part of a House-Senate conference committee, said that the poor economic conditions necessitated the changes to the bill: “We don’t perceive the money being there now so we were hoping to go ahead and get the Capitol Complex District established, get the board set up, get the boundaries, and then come back. The intent is to fund it when we come back next January when the economic environment is a little healthier.”
Formby said that there was joint decision between the House and Senate membership and leadership to hold off on funding but to go ahead and “lay the foundation.”
Everything from the salary for the executive director of the Capitol Complex to the office space the board would rent from are, according to the revised bill, “subject to the availability of funds.”
Another major change removes the Jackson City Council from having final approval over the infrastructure repair plan that the Capitol Complex’s board of directors creates.
Formby said that this was one change he deeply cared about.
“It makes no sense to me that we are going to create a separate district, create a(n executive) board for a separate district, and then we are going to create an advisory (committee) to help the district have guidance, and then we are going to go back and allow the Jackson City Council to have veto power over what that district does.,” he said. “If we are going to allow them to have that power, I don’t see a reason to create the district.”
Last week, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, told Mississippi Today that he was for the original legislation because he saw it as the state acknowledging its responsibility for infrastructure upkeep and maintenance within the area it utilizes each session.
“I do not support the bill in this form,” Blount said. “The most recent version of this bill removes the oversight from the elected governing authorities of the city. It creates an appointed judgeship that doesn’t exist (on this level) anywhere else in the state.”
This changes in the bill were met with the criticism from members of the Jackson City Council, which previously voted unanimously for the legislation’s original form.
Council President Melvin Priester, Jr., said, “This looks nothing like what we signed on for back in the fall. A number of us have been supporting this measure for quite some time and its just a slap in the face and its very disappointing that in the eleventh hour, without any communication this bill has been changed into something that is no longer something that we can support.”
Earlier, Priester wrote in Facebook post, “There was going to be a partnership … hey, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Well, last night, the gift horse changed into a trojan horse.”
Priester also pointed to the changes in the bill which stipulate that the district would have its own judge who will be appointed by the governor. Priester wrote, “That is new and that turns this into an annexation bill in my opinion.”
Akil Bakari, spokesperson for the The Coalition for Economic Justice said this confirmed how he felt about the bill in the first place: “All we’ve heard this session is about these huge tax cuts and shortfalls in the foretasted revenues. Given the history of how Mississippi deals with Jackson I just couldn’t believe they were actually going to fund us.”
By withholding the Jackson City Council vote and creating a governor appointed justice, anxiety over the state seizing the district seems valid to Councilman De’Keither Stamps who said that the bill as revised has broad implications about democracy in the Mississippi: “You go to a heart of a city, you carve out an area, and appoint a judge that is accountable to the governor only, so that’s tearing apart the fabric of democracy. It’s not about an airport. It’s not about downtown. We are fighting for the very fabric that undergirds our democracy. And once we lose that what do we have?”