Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who wields significant control over the state of Mississippi’s budget, said he is open to appropriating funds to the city of Jackson, where thousands of residents are in their fourth week without running water.
A historic winter storm in mid-February froze water plant equipment and burst many pipes in the capital city, and at least 40,000 residents — mostly Black — were without water for nearly three weeks. Today, while city officials said water pressure has been restored to “95% of the city,” about 5,000 Jackson residents are still without water. City leaders say they need major investment from the state to replace their entire water and sewage system, which is estimated to cost about $2 billion.
Hosemann, in a one-on-one interview on Monday with Mississippi Today, said that he considers all options on the table in terms of financially supporting Jackson, including through several bills pending in the Legislature and potentially sending some of the state’s share of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Congress is expected to pass later this week.
“I’ve lived in Jackson more than 50 years. More than half my life has been spent here,” Hosemann told Mississippi Today. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make it better, and I want to make it better now. There’s a water crisis, and we want to help. Where we can help them with the funding, I want to do that. Jackson is the capital of Mississippi. It deserves to be supported as such.”
Hosemann continued: “The people that are responsible are the leaders of the city, and they need to come up with a cogent plan that explains how much they need and what they’re going to do with funding they may get. That gives us more room to support them monetarily.”
Hosemann and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba are scheduled to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the crisis and how the state can help. Lumumba, who wrote a letter to state leaders last week asking for an initial emergency appropriation of $47 million, met with Speaker of the House Philip Gunn on Friday.
In addition to considering potential state funding, Hosemann and his staff studied the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Congress is expected to pass this week. The lieutenant governor on Monday said he believed there are several pots of money within that package that could be appropriated to Jackson for work on its water system.
Questions about whether lawmakers will support the city have swirled after tension between Hosemann and Lumumba — long whispered about in the halls of the Capitol — came to light on March 4 during a mayoral debate ahead of 2021 municipal elections. At the heart of the tiff between the lieutenant governor and mayor is control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, which state leaders have tried for years to wrest from the city.
In 2016, lawmakers approved a bill to take over the airport and replace the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority with a regional board made up of state, county, and city appointees.
That law, however, has not gone into effect after the city joined a federal lawsuit to block the takeover. That lawsuit has continued, and city officials have said the state’s motives were race-based. Currently, the city controls the airport with its own board. All board members are African American. The lawmakers who pushed and passed the 2016 legislation are white.
“I sat down with the lieutenant governor to talk about Jackson’s infrastructure problem,” Lumumba said during the debate, referencing a meeting that occurred before the current water crisis. “We had a conversation that lasted for about an hour and a half, and he asked everyone to leave the room only to say, ‘Mayor, I need you to give me my airport, and I look at it for about $30 million.’”
Lumumba continued: “Not only am I supposed to be dumb, I’m also supposed to be cheap.”
When asked on Monday about the mayor’s comments, Hosemann said the inference that infrastructure funding from the state would be held up over any airport-related business “is completely inaccurate.”
“My concern about the work we have to do on Jackson’s water is a totally separate matter,” Hosemann said. “In regards to pending litigation between the city and state over the airport, I did speak about that with the mayor and said I would like to settle that case. But there is not a quid pro quo here. (The current water crisis) occurred after our meeting. We were in discussions about a number of things about the city, and I told him it was confidential. I intend to honor my side of the bargain.”
When asked if the airport would be a consideration during debate about whether to provide Jackson with state funding for its current crisis, Hosemann said, “Absolutely not. I just disagree with that.”
Meanwhile, a House bill introduced by Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, on Monday seeks legislative approval to allow the city of Jackson to hold a summer referendum to pass a one-cent sales tax increase. If approved, that new revenue — an estimated $14 million per year — could be used to back large bonds that the city would use to revamp its water and sewer system.
The House bill was dropped after a Friday meeting between Lumumba and Speaker Gunn in which the mayor asked for support of the city’s one-cent sales tax increase. Lumumba also asked Gunn to consider the $47 million emergency appropriation for specific projects.
While Gunn made no promises, several of the meeting’s attendees expressed optimism that future talks between the speaker and mayor would continue as the 2021 legislative session approaches its scheduled end of April 4.
Hosemann said he’ll hear the mayor out in their Tuesday meeting and will work with senators to determine the best course of action. He added: “Everything is on the table.”
“I think asking questions (of the city) about a specific plan is healthy and important,” Hosemann said. “But we’re not going to ignore the crisis or the people affected. That’s not who I am personally, whether I’ve been an elected official or not. The city has its leadership, the state has its leadership, and we want to make sure we’re helpful to any citizen in a crisis.”