Metro Jackson well-repped in key political positions

Will that help city advance legislative agenda?

The governor’s office and both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature will have entirely new leadership when the 2012 session starts at noon Jan. 3.

And each of the new faces has roots in the Jackson Metro area.

Gov.-elect Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves are from Rankin County. Rep. Phillip Gunn, a Republican whose district includes portions of Clinton and Madison County, is all but guaranteed to be the next House Speaker.

The three men whose approval each piece of legislation must receive before it becomes law are intimately familiar with the city of Jackson and its needs and problems. Will that give Jackson a built-in advantage in getting its legislative wish list passed?

“I would hope it would help,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who has been the tip of the spear for many a legislative fight on behalf of Jackson. “But of course, (former speaker) Billy McCoy has been a big supporter of Jackson.”

Indeed, McCoy told the Mississippi Business Journal during an interview last session that one of his favorite ways to unwind after a day at the Capitol was to drive by the Farish Street project and check on its progress. David Watkins, who is developing the historic Farish Street district, said in a separate interview last April that he and McCoy would often run into each other in the construction zone.

“He’s really interested in what we’re doing here,” Watkins said of McCoy. “He realizes what Farish Street could do for Jackson.”

Brown was part of a meeting right before Christmas with Jackson officials in which the city’s legislative priorities were discussed. And while specifics weren’t laid out, Brown said the city’s agenda would be similar to those from previous sessions.

“They have to decide what they want to do,” he said. “Obviously, they’d like some help with some of the infrastructure projects that we have. We don’t know exactly what they’ll ask for, but roads are always a problem. There’s just not enough money for them.”

Brown said he expects to receive Jackson’s legislative bundle by mid-January, in time to file the bills before the session’s first deadline on Feb. 20.

It’s likely the agenda will include a mechanism to enact a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes law, in which Jackson would receive a lump sum from the state to offset the revenue the city loses from state buildings being exempt from property taxes. The bill would likely be dead on arrival, though, Brown said.

“I’d like to see it. I think we need to do it with our property tax situation. With the budget like it is, I think anything that adds cost to the state general fund is going to be a non-starter.”

With revenue bills required to originate in the House, such legislation would have to earn Gunn’s approval before hitting the floor. Gunn did not return messages by the time the MBJ went to press last Tuesday.

Jackson scored a couple major victories during the 2011 session. A bond package totaling $38 million for a civil rights museum and a Mississippi history museum passed. The two museums should be open in time for the state’s bicentennial in 2017. They will sit adjacent to each other in downtown Jackson.

The bill setting up the fund for the museums enjoyed support from Gov. Haley Barbour, and several key committee chairmen whose districts are outside Jackson. It would have been difficult to form that coalition in the past, Brown said.

“I don’t sense as much anti-Jackson (sentiment) as maybe there was 20 years ago. A lot of cities in the state need help. There has been some concern in other parts of the state that if we help Jackson, what will happen for Hattiesburg, Meridian, the Gulf Coast. Everybody needs help.

“I do see some concern about just the whole financial situation,” Brown continued. “We don’t have enough money to do the things we need to do. There’s just not enough to go around.”

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