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Transfer of policy making for airports wins Senate passage

By TED CARTER

Transfer of control of Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field to a state-created board is headed for action in the Mississippi House of Representatives after winning Senate approval on a 29-18 vote March 3.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2162, has not yet been assigned to a committee. The assigned committee “is going to be the clearest sign of what will happen,” said attorney Lucien Smith, a Balch & Bingham partner who until late January served as chief of staff to Gov. Phil Bryant.

If the bill goes to the Ports, Harbors and Airports Committee, “I think it has a good chance of becoming law,” he added, citing the super majority Republicans have in the House.

However, makeup of the legislation could change by the time the legislation reaches the governor, due to a reverse repealer sponsor Sen. Josh Harkins, a Flowood Republican, put into the bill.

The repealer specifies the measure goes into effect July 1 but on June 30 nullifies the changes the bill makes to current law. To avoid that outcome, both legislative bodies must agree to remove the repealer. It is expected that would follow House-Senate conference committee action likely to include changes intended to satisfy at least some of the objections to the bill.

The repealer “to me is a pretty strong sign that they want to consider changes,” Smith said.

The repealer is a life jacket of sorts. It keeps the bill alive but also gives legislators not on board time to seek changes to it, according to Smith.

The Balch & Bingham lawyer, whose specialties include government affairs, said he expects Harkins’ bill will be assigned to a committee by early next week. But a House vote is unlikely until after legislators vote on appropriations and revenue bills before the coming week’s deadline to do so, Smith said.

Supporters of SB2162 had to overcome challenges and amendments from Jackson’s Senate delegation throughout an afternoon-long debate last week. As the shape of the voting became clear, Jackson’s Sens. John Horhn and David Blount cautioned backers to expect years of litigation.

Much of the argument centered on whether the transfer was a “taking” from the City of Jackson.  Harkins 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 was 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.”

Horhn, a Jackson Democrat, 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.

Horhn pledged after the vote that if approved by the full Legislature, “the legislation will be thwarted” through legal action.

While the litigation drags on, efforts to bring a new airline to Jackson-Evers to replace Southwest could stall, as would efforts to market land around the airport for commercial development, they warned.

No one is going to make deals with the Airport Authority under those circumstances, Horhn said. “The question is, “Are the proponents willing to let the airport languish?”

Harkins originally did not intend to include the Hawkins Field general aviation airport in the governance transfer. He said he added at the suggestion of Jackson Municipal Airport Authority CEO Carl Newman. The CEO, according to Harkins,  advised it would be unwise to separate control of the two.

Horhn initially said he would be “surprised” if Newman made such a suggestion. He next failed with an amendment to take Hawkins Field from the bill.

In the days since the Senate vote, Newman has declined to address his advice to Harkins, saying through a spokeswoman that he will no longer talk publicly about the move to expand governance of the airports.

Horhn said the clarification he has received is that Newman based his suggestion for keeping the airports together on the need for Hawkins Field to continue receiving help from Jackson-Evers International. “Resources at Jackson’s municipal airport are used to support part of Hawkins Field,” Horhn said, and added Newman thinks Hawkins has no means of survival “without those resources.”

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.

His comments after the Senate vote were far sharper, with Yarber calling Harkins’ bill and its passage “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. The governing board’s name would be changed to Metropolitan Airport Authority.

Board nominating rules would require each board member to “bring something of value” to the board, be it professional background or work in the aviation field, Harks said in an interview before last week’s voting.

Membership on the current board requires no specific professional background or experience in aviation.

With expanded representation, board policy making will reflect more of a regional approach, he said.

“The landscape has changed such that the population has shifted out of the city of Jackson,” he said. “I think more [passenger] traffic is coming from Madison and Rankin counties.”

Opponents of the policy-making transfer have warned the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, will object to the change. Harkins said the FAA has told him the agency’s only concern is that a viable procedure is in place to administer grants it awards.

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