Monday, February 8, 2016
The Republican governor of Mississippi would get strong control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport under the highly anticipated legislation that finally landed this weekend. The controversial bill would allow the Jackson mayor only one appointment to a nine-member commission, and for a one-year initial term as opposed to longer terms for other appointees.
The bill would create the Jackson Metropolitan Airport Authority, replacing the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority that currently oversees the airport. The current authority has five members, all appointed by the mayor. The bill would increase the airport authority to nine members and include representatives from the Mississippi National Guard and the Mississippi Development Authority.
The governor would get to select five of the members on the committee, the Jackson mayor would pick only one member, and the lieutenant governor would get to select one member. Two of the governors' choices have to hold valid pilot's licenses, and three of his picks will come from lists that the City of Jackson and Madison and Rankin County Boards of Supervisors create. Commissioners from Rankin County and the two appointees with aviation experience would serve the longest terms of four and five years. The mayor's pick would only serve an initial term of one year.
All commissioners would be required to have at least 10 years of experience in executive management, the aviation industry, financing or engineering fields.
Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, is the main author of the bill, but he had support from four other Republican senators on the legislation. If the bill passes, the new commission would take over July 1. The bill now heads to the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee.
Jackson-based legislators have vocalized their distaste for the proposed bill, as well as some Jackson business leaders, who have called the bill an attempted "takeover." Harkins said the city of Jackson will not suffer financially from the plan.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, believes that the dispute is not about revenue but about governance and power. Control of the airport's commission could hinge on a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airports.
When explaining his motivations for filing the bill, Harkins cites frequently repeated knocks on the airport: the high cost of flying out of Jackson compared to New Orleans or Memphis, the departure of Southwest Airlines in 2014, the lack of amenities inside the terminal and the dearth of development around the airport.
"I've been in (office) four years, and I have seen Southwest leave, and I haven't seen anybody from the airport up at the Legislature asking for us for help attracting another low-cost carrier. The fact that airline tickets are so high, it got me looking into it," Harkins told the Jackson Free Press.
Harkins maintains that there is no racist intention or "we're taking this away from the City of Jackson" connotation to the bill. The proposed legislation would give most authority over the airport to white Republican legislators and take it away from mostly black city officials in Jackson.
"This is about making the airport the best it can be to serve the citizens of this state. Jackson, financially, will not suffer one bit under this plan. If the airport improves, the City of Jackson will improve. They'll get more revenue from it," he said.
Harkins believes that a new board will help drive more economic development of the area around the airport. "We should be trying to attract businesses that can utilize that airport and the space out there, and that's what I hope this new board will focus on and see what they can do," Harkins said.
Read more about the airport "takeover" controvery at jfp.ms/airport.