JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Jackson’s troubled water system could be one step closer to getting new owners after legislation passed the state Senate Tuesday.
It's the latest development in a crisis that has left residents of Mississippi's capital without consistent access to running water and has aggravated divisions between the Democratic-led city and the Republican-controlled state government.
The bill would transfer ownership of Jackson's water system to a new regional public entity overseen by a nine-member board — with the majority appointed by state leaders. Sponsored by Republican Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch, it passed in a 34-15 vote and will move to the House for more work.
Parker said he introduced the bill to establish how the water system will be governed after Ted Henifin, the system's interim manager appointed by a federal court, concludes his work. Parker also said Jackson's water woes are stymying economic development.
“This crisis has been a black eye on the city of Jackson. But it's also been a problem for the state as a whole,” Parker said.
Parker recounted an incident where a German company was considering expanding to Mississippi. The company asked if the state had running water.
The water crisis has caused repeated outages in which many of the city's 150,000 residents have gone days and weeks without water to drink, cook, bathe or flush toilets.
Democratic senators rebuked the move as a brazen seizure of a city asset and overreach by the state government into Jackson's affairs.
“If we’re so concerned about our national reputation, are you aware of how we look right now?” said Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat from Jackson. “Mississippi looks like the old Mississippi that we heard about and some of us have lived through. We look like we are doing a taking on some Black folks.”
Jackson is an 80% Black city. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is Black, as are most of the lawmakers who represent the city in the state legislature. Lumumba has said he wants the city to maintain control of its water.
Under the bill’s original version, the Jackson mayor would have four appointments to the regional utility. On two of those, the mayor would have been required to “consult” with the mayors of suburban Byram and Ridgeland. The governor would make three appointments, and the lieutenant governor would make two. All nine would need to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Parker brought a modified version of the bill to the Senate Tuesday, which he said was the product of a meeting with Lumumba. Under the new version the Senate approved, the mayor would not have to consult with the mayors of the smaller cities.
“This is not a problem that the current mayor of Jackson created, that he had had any control over," Parker said. “We have been given an opportunity with some federal dollars to try to fix this problem.”
Henifin has said that he believed Parker's proposal to create a new regional entity was motivated by a desire by state officials to access a large pot of federal dollars earmarked for the Jackson. Since then, Parker added language to the bill stating that all federal funds should be used within the areas served by Jackson's water system.
Parker said he has not met with Henifin, but they have a meeting scheduled later this month. The new version of Parker’s bill also specifies the regional board would be a “corporate nonprofit” — the model favored by Henifin.
Parker’s district is in northwest Mississippi, but he lives with his daughter at an apartment complex in Jackson when the Legislature is in session. He said scooping up water from the building’s swimming pool to use in their shared apartment’s toilets is part of what prompted him to introduce the bill.
The Republican-controlled House voted 83-28 Tuesday to pass legislation that says cities must base water bills on the amount of water a customer uses, prohibiting water billing based on the home’s value. The bill would outlaw a new billing system proposed by Henifin earlier this month. Lumumba watched the debate from a public gallery with other spectators.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.