Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann plans to spend at least part of the 2013 legislative session opposing a measure that would take 16th section land lease oversight from him and give it to individual school boards.
Hosemann, in his role as the state’s land officer, oversees the management and the leasing of Mississippi’s 640,000 acres of 16th section lands. Of the state’s 152 school districts, 107 own 16th section land.
Hosemann’s office and the Mississippi Forestry Commission manage the timber on the parcels.
One of Hosemann’s priorities after first being elected in 2007 was to publish on the secretary of state’s website the 16th section leases. It was unclear last week if the legislation Hosemann plans to oppose would end that practice.
During a speech to a group of business leaders in early January, Hosemann said his office, since 2008, had increased 16th section revenue by $17 million, from $54 million then to $71 million in 2011. School districts in North Mississippi, Hosemann said, get $20 million to compensate for their not having 16th section land. Timber revenues since 2008 have risen $12 million annually, Hosemann said. His office also audits oil and gas payments districts receive from energy companies either exploring for or extracting the fuels.
“It’s a $91-million business, and it needs to be run like a business,” he said.
To ensure that, Hosemann said his office needs to retain oversight of 16th section leases and timber management. Removing that authority would lead to secret lease deals made out of the public light, which could drive up education costs, he said.
Oversight of the 16th section leases has been an issue going back almost four decades. Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus said in the 1980s that the practice had “a history of poor judgment, neglect, nepotism and outright fraud.” Molpus said then that he hoped that the revenue generated from 16th section land leases could pay for the bulk of public education in Mississippi.
That has not happened. Revenue from 16th section land leases, according to Hosemann’s figures, generate about $70 million annually, which is far less than the more than $2 billion the state spends on public education.
Authority over the leases were with individual county boards of supervisors until the late 1970s, when it was given to individual school boards with overall supervision by the office of the state land commissioner. When that agency was abolished in 1984, that authority shifted to the secretary of state.
Legislation stripping Hosemann of oversight authority had not been filed as of last Tuesday. During his speech to business leadership, Hosemann did not name the legislators who planned to file it. He also would not name them during an interview last week in his Capitol office.
Sixteenth section land in Mississippi was designated for the benefit of the state’s public schools in 1804, when the state was still a territory. Thomas Jefferson established the idea that the 16th section, or 640 acres, of every township be set aside to benefit public schools.