House kills Jackson airport renovation bill

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The Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport

A bill that would have allowed a developer to invest up to $100 million in modernizations and renovations of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport died Wednesday when House members voting against bringing it to the floor for consideration.

House Bill 1743 had passed the House Ways & Means Committee earlier Wednesday.

In the committee meeting, Rep. Randy Rushing, R-Decatur, asked whether the bill was being passed with a particular developer in mind.

Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, told the committee an interested developer is currently working with the state on a memorandum of understanding and has already hired Butler Snow for legal help.

Smith said language in the bill would protect the state from any default on money borrowed.

“If there was any indebtedness or lien the state ran into the lease payments are guaranteed to first pay off any default, so that state would have no liability,” Smith explained.

Several committee members asked what involvement the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority would have. Smith responded the board would be responsible for approving any lease agreement.

Smith said the name of the potential developer is not yet public as no agreement has been finalized.

Officials at the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority were not immediately available for comment.

Mississippi House

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson

Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said he urged other lawmakers to vote against bringing the bill up on the floor because of the lack of information legislators representing the city had received.

“We had no idea where that bill came from, don’t know who the entity was we were going to bond this money to,” Bell said, noting that the bill refers to the airport as located in “Rankin County” as opposed to the city of Jackson.

“We’re exhausted with the leadership … not including us,” Bell said.

During the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers approved a bill that would replace the five-member board of commissioners selected by Jackson officials with a nine-member commission appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and supervisors in Madison and Rankin counties as well as Jackson officials.

State Sen. Josh Harkins

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, and other supporters of the measure said it would help facilitate development near the airport, which they believed the Jackson airport board lacked the expertise to accomplish.

Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Harkins said he was unfamiliar with the bond proposal.

Last year’s airport legislation prompted a federal lawsuit from the Rev. Jeffery Stallworth, a Jackson resident and former airport commissioner. The city of Jackson, along with each of the city council members, later joined Stallworth’s suit as plaintiffs in the federal suit.

In its motion to join the lawsuit, made in June, attorneys for Jackson wrote: “Senate Bill 2162 seeks to ‘take,’ ‘convert’ or otherwise ‘strip’ the City of property rights and municipal purposes.”

A judge later removed Stallworth but individual board members and the city of Jackson remain as plaintiffs.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Rankin County have all asked the federal court to dismiss the case.

The Senate passed three revenue bills ahead of the midnight deadline.

One bill, if ultimately passed later this session, would issue $35 million in bonds toward repairing and upgrading the Huntington Ingalls Shipyard (a state-owned shipyard) in Gulfport and $20 million in bonds to the Mississippi Developmental Authority for various projects.

A similar bill passed the House on Tuesday, though providing $45 million for Ingalls and including placeholder language for capital improvements at state universities and for the Development Authority.

The bill, which passed almost unanimously by voice vote, yielded little debate. Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, asked Senate Finance Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, why the bill did not include bond moneys for infrastructure repair.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall

“I’ve heard from constituents who would like every dollar spent on roads and bridges,” Fillingane said. “For the purpose of this bill, that’s not what it is. We’ll see what the House sends to us.”

Another bill passed Wednesday would exempt Gulf oil exploration companies from paying ad valorem tax for exploratory vessels, while another bill passed would keep companies or individuals from paying state sales tax on “installation charges” when the principle activity of the work is for building or repairing structures.

Both passed on voice votes with little debate.

In addition, the House approved several tax and so-called local and private bills. Notable ones include:

House Bill 1611 —Increased the amount of tax credits for wireless communications providers contracting with colleges and universities from $2 million to $2.5 million. It passed 114-3.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia

House Bill 1598 — Increases the tax credit for venison processors who donate meat to the state Hunter’s Harvest Program. Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, said the credit would amount to “thousands of dollars.” Lamar said: “We’ve got a lot of deer in Mississippi and we’ve got a lot of hungry folks and we need to put those two folks together.” It passed 119-0.

House Bill 1583 — Provides an additional homestead exemption for people over 65 who are totally disabled. Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, said it would help older people have more disposable income. Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, quipped that seniors in Ocean Springs would have more disposable income if they had a different mayor. Zuber is rumored to be pondering a run for mayor there. It passed 119-2.

House Bill 1686 — Would exempt municipalities from having to pay taxes on revenues from city-sponsored events. Concession vendors would still owe the tax. The bill was amended to include a reverse repealer, which is a tool used when a bill needs more work. Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, wanted to work on the bill more because he said exempting municipalities from sales tax could affect their ability to pay debt service. It passed 120-2.

Contributing: R.L. Nave and Adam Ganucheau