By TED CARTER
Transfer of control of Jackson Medgar-Wiley Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field to a state-created board won approval from the Mississippi Senate late Thursday afternoon, but not before senators opposed to the transfer warned backers to expect years of litigation.
Senators approved the governance transfer on a 29-18 vote, with Jackson’s Senate delegation among the dissenters.
Much of the argument centered on whether the transfer was a “taking” from the City of Jackson. Bill sponsor Sen. Josh Harkins of Flowood emphasized repeatedly Jackson would keep all the property and tax revenues.
“Nothing is going to change on the deed; nothing is going to change on the revenues,” Harkins said.
Sen. David Blount of Jackson is unconvinced. “This is nothing but a taking. If the state can take this from us they can take it from you,” Blount said, calling the debate a “property rights” issue. “In eminent domain you at least have to go to court and pay what the property is worth. This is a taking for nothing – not a nickel.”
Sen. John Horhn of Jackson likened the governance transfer to playground bullies taking away a ball from others kids because “they saw something they wanted.”
Both Blount and Horhn warned supporters to expect years of legal fights that would stymie hoped-for commercial development of land around the airport and attempts to attract a low-cost carrier to replace Southwest Airlines, which departed in June 2014.
Harkins originally did not intend to include the Hawkins Field general aviation airport in the governance transfer. He said he added it on the advice of Jackson Municipal Airport Authority CEO Carl Newman. The CEO advised it would be unwise to separate control of the two, Harkins said.
Horhn said he would be “surprised” if Newman made such a suggestion. He next failed with an amendment to take Hawkins Field from the bill.
Newman was out of town and unavailable for comment late Thursday afternoon.
Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber weighed-in with a press statement after the vote, his first public pronouncements since an early February statement in which he called the takeover damaging to the “voice of the people” who made the initial investments in the airport’s creation in the early 1960s.
Thursday’s comments were far sharper, with Yarber calling Harkins’ bill and the Senate passage of it “a blatant abuse of power” that removes rights designated for Jackson and its residents.
In a vague reference to Jackson’s past, Yarber said, “ Sadly, we are once again reminded of the divisive abuse of power by some elected officials who would deprive Jackson of such rights.”
Yarber did not mention legal action, noting instead that he will continue to work with state lawmakers “to ensure that what is best for the City of Jackson is the focus and remains at the forefront of the conversation.”
Under Harkins’ bill, policy decisions for Jackson Evers and Hawkins Field would be made by a nine-member regional board appointed by the governor. Jackson would retain two members.
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