The controversy brewing over control of Jackson's airport is inherently political. Sen. Josh Harkins, a Flowood Republican, says he will submit a bill to turn over management of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport to a commission appointed by Mississippi's Republican governor. Currently, the city's Democratic mayor and Jackson City Council appoint the airport's leaders.
However, state Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, believes that the dispute could hinge on the outcome of the national presidential election. "Ultimately, the decision will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration, who has to approve governance changes," Horhn said at Friday Forum at Koinonia Coffee House today.
Horhn, chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee for the past four years, said the FAA does not allow airport income to go to state governments; most airports are either municipally and regionally operated. He said a Democratic president's transportation secretary, who oversees the FAA, would be friendlier to Jackson in a legal battle with the state.
The legislation, if successful, would replace the current five-member board of commissioners, whom the mayor of Jackson nominates and the city council approves, with a seven-person commission. Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties would each have two members and one at-large member, all of whom the governor would appoint.
Horhn said the airport fight is symbolic of the years-long back-and-forth between Jackson and Republican officials for control of resources.
In an earlier interview, sponsor Harkins reinforced that his effort is to wrest full control of resources away from Jackson. He said the airport is a huge economic-development driver that shuts out Rankin County because the county doesn't have a voice in operational decisions.
"It's similar to the wastewater issue we have," Harkins said. "If anything wants to be developed in the city of Jackson, it's got to go through the City of Jackson to get approval. When one county or city is controlling development or economic development in another county, more than likely (other cities and counties) would want a seat at the table."
Horhn says the fight for the airport is not about revenue--the city receives approximately $100,000 in revenue from the airport annually--but governance and power. He added that disinvestment in the city of Jackson has been ongoing in past years, with more state workers moving out of the city, taking retail and commerce along with them. As a capital city, Jackson has lost the benefits previously gained from housing the state government. State-owned properties are exempt from ad-valorem taxes, which erodes an already struggling tax base in Jackson, while infrastructure needs have continued to rise with minimal help from the state Legislature.
Nonetheless, Horhn said Jackson Democrats and the Republican leadership should negotiate but that he and the city's Democrats will play hardball if necessary.
Horhn said Mississippi needs to get away from strict party-line--red vs. blue--politics. He said much about Mississippi's race relations in the state are driving policies and decisions made in the state government--and that needs to change.
"We're being red-lined by the corporate community," Horhn said. "I think that it can be turned around, but it needs to be a purple decision."
Also see: JFP Editorial: Need 'Good Faith' Before Regionalization
News editor R.L. Nave contributed to this story.