- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Senate on Thursday passed the final version of a bill to expand the governing board of the state’s largest airport, but only after a racially charged debate with opponents saying white suburbs are trying to seize control of an asset controlled by the majority-black capital city.

Senators voted 31-15 for Senate Bill 2162, which would replace a five-member board with a nine-member Jackson Metropolitan Airport Authority and give suburbs and the state some control.

The board governs Jackson-Medgar Evers International Airport, which is the largest airport in the state; and the smaller Hawkins Field airport, which is in the city. The new board would also oversee both.

The bill was held for the possibility of more debate, although opponents lack the votes to change the outcome. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who lived in Rankin County for decades, has said the airport needs a regional board.

Rosie L.T. Pridgen, chairwoman of the current board, said the state is making a “power grab” for airports that are well run. She said the board will take legal steps to try to block the change.

“It is a hostile takeover,” Pridgen said Thursday at the Capitol. “We will look to defend our airports.”

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber currently names all five board members; the bill says he and the Jackson City Council would name one each.

The governor would pick two members, and suburban Rankin and Madison counties would name one each. Also getting one appointment each would be the lieutenant governor, the executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority and the adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard.

Those appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor would have to live in Jackson. Sales of airport land would have to be approved by the Legislature.

The Federal Aviation Administration could have a say in whether the airport board can expand.

An extended legal fight started in 2013 after North Carolina legislators created a regional board to replace a city board to run the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Josh Harkins of Flowood, caused tense debates between Republican lawmakers from mostly white suburbs and Democratic lawmakers from the majority-black city. The airport sits near Harkins’ district in suburban Rankin County, but it is on land that has been part of the city of Jackson for decades.

Supporters of the bill said the airport should have a regional board to better represent the customer base it serves and bring more development to the area.

Opponents said the bill is a financially motivated grab for an enterprise that the majority-black city has run for decades.

“Somebody is trying to take our house that we bought and paid for and they’re trying to negotiate with us what rooms we get to keep,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said Thursday. “This is not about what happens in the air. This is about what happens on land.”

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, said lawsuits will follow.

“Rest assured we’re going to fight it, and we’re going to fight it until the end,” Norwood said.

Yarber said in a statement that by passing the bill the Senate is taking away Jackson taxpayers’ voice.

“The City of Jackson implores Gov. Phil Bryant not to sign this legislation into law,” Yarber said. “We stand ready to take all measures, in a court of law if necessary, to protect our citizens, their assets and their sacrifices.”

Harkins said no one has been able to show him a regional board would take anything from the city.

“At the end of the day, the board is there for one common goal - to make the airport the best it can be,” Harkins said.

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Online: Senate Bill 2162, https://bit.ly/1RnU1x1 .


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