Mississippi House seeks to control Jackson sales tax revenue

Published 7:45 pm Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Mississippi House voted Thursday to further restrict how the capital city of Jackson, which has struggled with water problems, can spend money from a 1% local sales tax — the latest effort in the Republican-led Legislature to control actions of the Democratic-led city.

Jackson voters approved the tax in 2014, with the money designated for roads, bridges, water and sewer. Under House Bill 1168 that passed the House Thursday, all of the money would go toward the city’s struggling water system.

Jackson lawmakers and other Democrats opposed the plan. They said directing all the 1% sales tax revenue to water would hinder Jackson’s ability to fix heavily damaged roads and bridges, including those pockmarked by potholes deep enough to flatten tires.

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“Our streets will go to the devil,” said Democratic Rep. Earle Banks of Jackson.

Jackson has had water problems for years and most of the city lost running water for several days in late August and early September after heavy rainfall exacerbated problems in the main water treatment plant. Parts of Jackson lost water again after a cold snap in December.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, a Republican from Senatobia, sponsored the bill. He said ensuring clean, fresh drinking water is a higher priority now than fixing potholes.

“There is a serious need to spend money on water and sewer in the city of Jackson,” Lamar said.

Opponents of the bill pointed out that Jackson is set to receive $600 million from the federal government for water system improvements. Lamar said he does not know when the federal money will arrive. He also acknowledged he has not spoken with Ted Henifin, who was appointed by the federal government to oversee improvements to the Jackson water system.

Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez pointed out that money generated by the 1% sales tax in Jackson is already overseen by a commission with members chosen by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker. Critics of that commission say it was created by the majority-white Legislature to curb the power of elected officials in a city that is more than 80% Black.

Speaking of Lamar’s new proposal, Johnson said: “This is another one of those paternalistic ideas that, ‘We’re going to tell y’all what to do because we want to punish you while we’re doing it.’”

House Bill 1168 passed 76-41. The vote was largely along party lines, with support from Republicans and most of the opposition from Democrats.

The bill was held for the possibility of more House debate, and it eventually would have to go to the Senate for more work.

The Republican-controlled state Senate recently passed a bill that would transfer the ownership and management of the Jackson water system to a regional board after the federally-appointed administrator leaves.

A bill that awaits House debate would create a new court system in parts of Jackson with appointed rather than elected judges. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the court proposal reminds him of apartheid. He has also sharply criticized the regional water board proposal.