Mississippi Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, proposed a bill removing the majority-Black city of Jackson from overseeing its own water infrastructure repairs.
Mike Sayer, co-founder and senior organizer of political rights advocate organization Southern Echo Inc., once said: “[T]o understand the true intent of any legislation, look at its original language. Read how the bill looked when it first hit the committee. That’ll tell you all you need to know about that bill.”
Sayer’s advice makes legislation stuffing the city of Jackson into a new regional utility authority look like a pirate ship.
After a series of critical water failures and flooding left thousands of residents without drinkable water for more than a week last year, the administration of President Joe Biden and Congress awarded the city $600 million to pay for water repairs and redevelopment. Now Mississippi legislators want a piece of it.
Sen. David Parker (R-Olive Branch) introduced Senate Bill 2889 to create the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority last month. Regionalization will put white state leaders in charge of how the majority-Black city of Jackson spends its federal allotment by placing spending under a nine-member “Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority Board of Directors.”
Sen. Parker told reporters his bill proposal was designed “to give the mayor four appointments on a nine-member board,” but the language of his bill originally only allowed the mayor of Jackson to appoint two members to that board—and only then with approval from the majority-white, majority Republican Mississippi Senate. The affluent suburban communities of Byram and Ridgeland each got to select another two appointments, and the governor and Lt. governor appointed the rest.
Senators later tweaked Parker’s legislation to allow the mayor to appoint a minority of four board members, but still only with Senate approval. Then an all-white Senate bloc voted this month to approve the bill before sending it to the heavily gerrymandered white super-majority of the House for consideration. Despite the tweaking, the point of the board remains to usurp the city of Jackson from overseeing the repair of its own water system and put it in the hands of a state that has been working to deplete the city’s tax base.
Parasitic suburbs have been drawing Jackson’s middle class from the city for decades, leaving little revenue to repair the municipality’s aging infrastructure. White flight kicked into high gear after the re-election of the city’s first Black mayor in the 1990s, but state leaders claim ignorance of the shift. Gov. Tate Reeves snidely declared Jackson “has not experienced a reduction of tax revenue due to ‘a steady exodus of white and affluent residents,’” and that the city experienced an “$84 million increase in total revenue from $180 million to $264 million” between 2003 and 2020. Reeves omitted the fact that most of that revenue is Metropolitan Planning Organization money for roads and bridges and ad valorem taxes for public schools, as well as revenue generated from car tag purchases and city-owned cell phone towers. He further omitted much of that increase comes from steadily rising property taxes and fees, and that none of that revenue can be used for water and sewer upgrades. Water and sewer repairs can only be funded by the city’s enterprise fund, which can only pay for itself through municipal water bills.
In addition to steering new business investment away from the city, Republican leadership also consistently denied the city of Jackson low interest loans for water repair projects. Reeves himself bragged how he slyly knocked the city of Jackson out of bond commission deliberation before its loans even came up for approval.
“[…] I’ve never voted against [Jackson bonds] because it’s never gotten to the bond commission because what we have done is we talk to the city of Jackson […] and if we are not comfortable […] we never bring it up for a vote,” Reeves boasted years ago on a conservative talk radio show.
By establishing a regional authority, critics say Parker’s bill will allow this same governor and his Senate allies to steer federal money intended for Jackson to wealthy suburbs inserting themselves in the authority. Ted Henifin is a third-party administrator established by the U.S. Department of Justice to supervise contract purchases and repairs related to the $600 million federal appropriation. Henifin told reporters that he is one of those critics.
“I believe the $600-plus million in federal funding has created a monster in the Mississippi Legislature,” Henifin told the Mississippi Free Press.
Federal administrators who oversaw the DOJ order appointing Henifin as third-party manager were wary of regionalization schemes diverting federal money, and they specifically barred Henifin himself from either entering into a regionalization plan with Jackson assets or selling assets off to another party. Henifin and the court order that installed him is only in charge of the city’s disbursement of the $600 million for a limited time, however. After that, Parker and his cohorts want control.
Parker claimed during Senate debate that he wants to remove Jackson from control over its own system because city leaders, who are majority Black, cannot be trusted to spend the money appropriately.
“[… We] wouldn’t want a situation where the city of Jackson had another need and pledged part of the water system [money] toward that need and then when the water system has a bonding need it doesn’t have an asset to pledge,” Parker said.
Jackson resident Sen. John Horhn told Parker that Jackson officials have no legal way of spending the federal money on anything other than water-related repairs.
“Are you aware that the water system is paid by an enterprise fund and is kept separate and apart from the city’s general fund,” Horhn demanded.
Parker, an optometrist, pled ignorance of this: “I don’t have access to the city’s management—”
“Enterprise fund [money], by law, cannot be mingled, so I’m not sure I’m following your argument,” Horhn said. He then went on to tell Parker that the state of Mississippi has contributed little to nothing to the $600 million in federal money for repairs, or to the additional $200 million repair money financed by city taxpayers.
“The state of Mississippi is not putting a single red cent in,” Horhn argued.