Bills Target Jackson Development, Infrastructure


Sen. John Horhn says stiffer penalties for open-meetings violations are unnecessary.

In the sixth week of its session, the Mississippi Legislature passed a number of bills relevant to the city of Jackson.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would allow the lease or sale of the old Mississippi School for the Blind property north of Eastover Drive and east of Interstate 55. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, passed Feb. 8, while the Senate version, authored by Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, passed unanimously Feb. 10.

Jackson developer Ted Duckworth was in negotiations last year with Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann to lease the property for a $150 million mixed-use project to be called the District at Eastover. Those negotiations have not progressed, however, and both the Senate and House bills would circumvent Hosemann's office by directly authorizing the state's Department of Finance and Administration to sell or lease the property.

"A lot of people feel that the negotiations were stymied by having the office of the secretary of state involved," said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson.

The secretary of state's office was less inclined to sell the property than to lease it, Duckworth told the Jackson Free Press. "They're used to dealing with 16th Section land—property that they intend to own in perpetuity," Duckworth said. "We're not supportive of leasing the property."

Horhn also sponsored a bill re-authorizing the sale of some state-owned property in downtown Jackson for the Old Capitol Green development. The Senate passed that bill unanimously, giving the state until July 1 of this year to finalize the sale of property between Jefferson, Commerce, Pearl and Tombigbee streets to Full Spectrum New York, the project's lead developer.

Horhn had less luck with another proposal that would have transferred to state control sections of U.S. Highways 49 and 51 that the city of Jackson currently maintains. That bill died in committee.

The Senate unanimously approved a similar proposal for sections of state highways in Sunflower and Pontotoc Counties Feb. 8, however. Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, sponsored that measure, which would turn the highway sections over to the state for maintenance. Horhn said that Jackson's legislators will try again on their highway request when Simmons' bill goes to a conference committee after approval by the House.

"We plan to make the case and get our language put in conference," Horhn said.

Jackson's legislative agenda fared better in the House, which passed two items on the city's wish list last week. Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson, sponsored both measures. The first, House Bill 1153, would allow school districts in large cities like Jackson to expand their boards to accommodate one member from each of the city's wards. Currently, the Jackson Public Schools board has five members appointed by the mayor. While board members do not officially represent each of the city's seven wards, the mayor takes recommendations for appointments from city council members on a rotating basis, meaning that, at any time, two wards in the city are without representation on the board.

Calhoun's second bill, House Bill 1412, passed the House by a 108-10 vote Feb. 11. The bill would allow cities to assess the costs of maintaining abandoned or dilapidated properties to the property owner's taxes. Under current law, Jackson can only recover the cost of maintaining those properties by placing a lien on the property, which it can recoup when the property is sold.

Jackson legislators in the House also recently introduced a bill aimed at helping the city improve its water and sewer infrastructure, whose poor condition became especially apparent during a rash of water main breaks in January. The proposal, House Bill 1611, authorizes the state to issue general obligation bonds for repairs and improvements to its water lines. The measure must first win approval from the House Ways and Means Committee. Gov. Haley Barbour is unlikely to give the bill his blessing though, Horhn said.

"We're getting signals already from the Governor that he finds that mechanism unacceptable," Horhn said. "I just ran into him, and we had a conversation about it. He feels it opens a can of worms for the state, where other parts of the state would try to make the same justification as the capital city."


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