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Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has made his case to legislative leaders for state funding to help solve the city’s water crisis. They now have about three weeks to decide whether to step up and how.
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, city officials say “most” residents have had water service restored. City leaders, who have neglected funding the system for decades, say they need major investment from the state to repair system, which is estimated to cost at least $1 billion.
Lawmakers are in the final three weeks of the 2021 legislative session, which is scheduled to end on April 4 — though leaders are suggesting they could finish business sooner.
With the clock ticking, Lumumba met with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning. He made two main asks that mirrored a March 5 meeting with Speaker of the House Philip Gunn:
• Support a bill that would allow Jackson to raise its sales tax by 1 cent. If lawmakers and Jackson voters sign off on that proposal, the city would use that new revenue — an estimated $14 million per year — to back large bonds for water and sewer system repairs.
• Send the city $47 million in emergency funding for immediate necessary repairs on water treatment facilities following the 2021 winter storm.
Hosemann, a Jackson resident who told Mississippi Today on Monday “all options are on the table” regarding funding for the Jackson water crisis, took notes as the mayor and others in the meeting spoke, several of the meeting’s attendees told Mississippi Today. Hosemann asked several questions of Charles Williams, the city’s public works director, who gave a detailed accounting of the city’s funding needs — including both the $47 million emergency ask and long-term system replacement.
State Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat from Jackson, explained a bill he filed Monday that seeks legislative sign-off on the 1-cent sales tax increase. Hosemann said that if the House passes Bell’s bill, the Senate would consider moving it through their chamber.
The city officials left Hosemann’s office after about 50 minutes with no promises, but Lumumba told Thao Ta at WJTV after the meeting that he was encouraged by the conversation. Sources close to Hosemann said he will meet with every state senator representing the city of Jackson on Wednesday or Thursday to discuss the crisis and funding options.
Here are the options and variables being considered at the Capitol moving forward, according to several legislative sources in both the House and Senate:
1) The 1-cent sales tax increase
Rep. Bell’s bill, which is modeled after a bill lawmakers passed for the city of Tupelo in 1988, would acquire legislative approval for Jackson to raise its sales tax on certain retail items within city limits. If lawmakers pass the bill, the city’s residents would have to approve the tax hike in a summer vote.
Lumumba believes the increase in the sales tax is critical to securing large-scale funding in the short term. But by Tuesday, House leaders were privately and publicly questioning whether they should sign off. “It creates a precedent, if you will, that may be a dangerous area to go to as far as other cities around the state wanting to do the same thing,” Gunn told Scott Simmons at WAPT on Tuesday. “And we may get in a situation where the tax burden is just too great.”
In the Tuesday meeting with the mayor, Hosemann said the Senate would consider Bell’s bill if it passes the House. One consideration is how Jackson’s Senate delegation feels about the proposal. Last week, state Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat from Jackson who is close with Hosemann and ran unsuccessfully against Lumumba in the 2017 mayor’s race, told Mississippi Today he did not support the new 1-cent sales tax increase, saying it could drive businesses and people out of Jackson.
2) $47 million in state bonds
There is appetite on both sides of the Capitol to come up with the $47 million the city has requested. In the grand scheme of the Legislature’s annual bond process, $47 million is not too heavy a lift. City leaders have thoroughly and specifically explained to legislative leaders what they would use that money for, appeasing a general concern among lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — that the city has not always spent its money productively in years past.
But Gunn’s comments to WAPT on Tuesday and recent comments from Hosemann suggest that lawmakers representing the entire state will want to request their share of funds for aging infrastructure in other parts of the state. Jackson leaders will argue, however, that no other water systems in the state are failing to the point of leaving 40,000 residents without water for three weeks.
3) Appropriating federal stimulus package funding to the city
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said he personally spent hours the past week reading the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Congress passed on Wednesday. The Legislature will receive a substantial amount of federal money — early estimates suggest more than $1.5 billion — to appropriate.
But Congress just passed the package on Wednesday, and states won’t receive most of the federal funds for around 60 days. After they finish the session on April 4, state lawmakers are not scheduled to meet in Jackson again until January 2022. Because of the timing of the new stimulus package, however, many inside the building expect the Legislature will pass rules to allow them to convene in Jackson any time in 2021 to determine how to spend the stimulus funds. The bottom line: The timing of federal funding might not work well with the city’s needs for immediate funding, depending on what else lawmakers can come up between now and April 4.