Reeves: To fix Jackson infrastructure, solve crime first

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The day after the death of a bill that would have created a Capitol Complex district in downtown Jackson, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves discussed how the bill morphed from an infrastructure improvement bill to one that would bypass the Hinds County criminal justice system.

The original bill written earlier this year would have granted the city of Jackson $21 million in extra sales tax funds for infrastructure improvements in the district that covers downtown Jackson and includes Jackson State University, Fondren and Belhaven.

By Tuesday, the day before the bill died when the Senate adjourned for the session, a new version of the bill would have allowed the governor to appoint a judge to oversee cases of crimes committed within the district, effectively circumventing the current Hinds County and city of Jackson criminal justice system. The revised bill also would have removed the extra infusion of sales tax funds and provided no direct appropriation.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

“I don’t think you have to be a genius to determine that there are real challenges in the criminal justice system in Hinds County,” Reeves said. “I believe that if we’re going to fix our infrastructure and roads within that capitol complex, to make that a justified investment by the state, we must help fix the crime problem in the entire city and county.”

When plans to add the criminal justice section of the bill became public, many state delegates at the Capitol and city of Jackson leaders cried foul. Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the bill’s final version would have removed the city’s oversight from the proposed district’s board, which would decide how to spend any funding.

Jackson Councilman De’Keither Stamps said the criminal justice plans would “tear apart the fabric of democracy.” Councilman Melvin Priester Jr. likened the changing of the bill’s nature to “a Trojan horse.”

“I’m not afraid to admit that Jackson needs help with infrastructure and criminal justice,” Priester said.  “But if the holdup is over crime, let’s talk together as reasonable adults over common-sense compromises that will actually improve the criminal justice system in Jackson.

“Instead of just talking about a judge or having expanded patrolling by the UMC police, let’s talk about increasing the number of public defenders we have,” he said. “Let’s talk about increasing the capacity at the crime lab so that cases aren’t held in limbo while we struggle to identify the DNA of the perpetrator of a rape. Let’s fund mental health so that we are not blowing our budget on people that are mentally ill and need to be seen by a psychologist.

“If the Lt. Governor is genuine — and I have doubts about how genuine he is based on the manner with which this was handled — but if he is genuine let’s come back to the drawing board. Let’s spend the next few months talking like adults about crime,” Priester said.

“In the bill, they defined the problem as it concerns the city’s infrastructure, then at the last minute they try to overlay it with a solution to another problem,” said Jackson Councilman Ashby Foote after reading Reeves’ comments. “If you want to work on the criminal justice system in Hinds County, you need to come up with a bill that defines that problem and comes up with a solution. But to try to stick something into a bill that’s already fairly complex is bad government. That adds to the dysfunction.”

Though the bill died in the 2016 regular session, Reeves said lawmakers will likely attempt to pass similar legislation in future sessions.

“It is important, I believe, that our capital city is successful,” Reeves said. “It’s not only important for those cities in Rankin and Madison County, but it’s important for our whole state that our capital city is successful. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it in a way that is responsible for the taxpayers and in a way that actually makes a difference long-term.

“We’re not going to write a blank check,” he said. “That’s never going to happen.”