Jackson Still Upbeat on Capitol Agenda | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Jackson Still Upbeat on Capitol Agenda

Walter Zinn, Jackson’s director of governmental affairs, remains optimistic about working with the Mississippi Legislature for the rest of the session.

Walter Zinn, Jackson’s director of governmental affairs, remains optimistic about working with the Mississippi Legislature for the rest of the session.

Part of Walter Zinn's job, as director of governmental affairs for Jackson, is lobbying for the interests of the capital city in the state Legislature, which can be frustrating. As an example, Zinn referenced $24 million in tax incentives the state gave developers of the Outlets of Mississippi in Pearl in 2013.

The project was already underway without the state's assistance. To pass the incentive package, legislators invented a "retail tourism" category.

If the state can make up new types of tourism to justify private economic development, Zinn said, it can fabricate a designation for any purpose. He suggested, somewhat sarcastically, funding "religious tourism" for Jackson, which probably has the most churches in a state ranked the country's most religious.

But Zinn is sanguine over benefits the city may reap from this year's legislative agenda.

"There's no need for crying over that spilled milk," he said.

In this year's session, Jackson proposed eight items for consideration. One is reimbursement for police overtime for events at the state fairground and public universities, which would be budget line items for the state's Department of Agriculture and Commerce, and Institutions of Higher Learning, respectively. The Legislature has yet to finalize those appropriations.

Of the city's seven bills, three made it out of committee last week. Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, sponsored a bill to give Jackson latitude to license personal-care homes within the city. Currently, those homes fall under the responsibility of the Mississippi State Department of Health, Zinn said, but with the MSDH budget stretched thin, home inspections and enforcement are often low priorities.

Horhn said the bill would allow all municipalities to license the homes. In conversations with staff at MSDH, they indicated "they have a terrible problem with enforcing" the current regulations.

"Their hands are full," Horhn said, adding that this bill is an effort to provide the care that the residents deserve. The homes need to be licensed and the regulations enforced, he added.

Zinn concedes MSDH is short on resources, lacking money for inspectors and beds. But without sufficient oversight, the problems of the Jackson personal-care homes end up in the city's lap.

"We discovered over 30 personal-care homes (in Jackson) weren't licensed by the state," Zinn said. "It's not the city's responsibility to deal with, but we are dealing with it."

Zinn said that he's heard of people locked out of their homes, hungry people locked out of refrigerators, and in this winter's extreme cold, people freezing on the street. Neglect and abuse of residents is not uncommon. By making the city a licensing agent, the city could better support its residents in personal-care homes.

"People are dying," Zinn said. "This is not about inconvenience."

Another bill still on the agenda ties into the city's Second Chance program, which helps released offenders transition back into the community. HB960, sponsored by Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, requires that the Department of Corrections notify the city before releasing former prisoners here. MDOC is already required to inform sheriffs where the offense occurred and where the offender lived.

"Jackson shouldn't be a dumping ground" for MDOC, he added. Furthermore, many of the former prisoners who are coming to Jackson are not native to the capital city and have no family support systems to help keep them on the right track, Zinn said.

But Jackson has services other locations in the state don't; however, it can't deliver those services if the city doesn't know an offender is here. Re-entry programs are critical, he said, especially in the case of violent offenders, where recidivism is high.

"This is something we can immediately do to offset some of our crime rate," Zinn said.

Another bill still moving through the Legislature will allow Jackson to add up to 10 full-time municipal judges "as needed" to deal with the court's current backlog.

The city also has reason for optimism for three of its four dead bills. One item proposed election of Jackson Public Schools board members; however, HB 442, which is still alive as is another in the Senate, would require all of the state's school districts to elect its board members.

Two other dead bills fall under the purview of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which is fighting its own battle to squeeze funds out of the capitol. Last month, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review agreed with MDOT that it needs about $1 billion this year to maintain the state's many roads and bridges.

Jackson, of course, has its own road problems, and was seeking a 1 percent gas-tax deferment to maintain the 2,055 miles of city streets. The deferment isn't unusual. While the state distributes only 0.2 percent of gas taxes to municipalities, about $1 million total, coastal counties receive 0.8 percent from a Sea Wall Tax, for example, which has netted about $3.5 million from gas taxes over the last four years, Zinn said. The other MDOT item has been on the city's agenda for some time. The city wants to return maintenance of U.S. Highway 49 within city limits back to the state. It would need to bring the road back up to MDOT standards. But it's also a "gateway" to Jackson's burgeoning medical corridor.

"Recognizing it from that perspective allows us to have that conversation," Zinn said, and it won't stop Jackson from working with MDOT. He's hopeful that MDOT will increase its appropriation for Jackson under its budget.

The city was also attempting to change the deed for land on Lakeland Drive near Interstate 55 and Smith-Wills Stadium. Currently restricted to park purposes, the area could add to the city's inventory of prime commercial acreage. The Legislature disagreed, but Zinn believes the change may not require legislative action.

Finally, Zinn said, the city is pleased that a proposal died that would have allowed the state to take over cities under economic stress, and he's closely watching bills that may stimulate growth. He is working to lower thresholds for credit and incentives so that developers and even smaller, grassroots businesses can participate in Jackson's economy.

"The opportunities are there," Zinn said.

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