- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi House debated five hours Thursday before voting mostly along party lines to expand the Jackson airport board from an entirely city-run enterprise to one that would include members from suburban areas around the capital city.

Senate Bill 2162 passed 74-46 after a tense, racially charged debate.

Republicans who pushed for the change said the airport should have a regional board to better represent the customer base it serves and bring more development to the area.

Democrats said it is an attempt to grab power from Mississippi’s majority-black capital city and take advantage of something the city managed even before the current Municipal Airport Authority was established in 1960.

The bill, proposed by a senator from a predominantly white suburb, would replace a five-member board with a nine-member Jackson Metropolitan Airport Authority.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber currently names all five members; the bill would allow him and the Jackson City Council to name one member each. The governor would pick two board members, and suburban Rankin and Madison Counties would each name one. 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.

The House changed the bill, which passed the Senate on March 3, to require that the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s appointees be from Jackson. The bill will go back to the Senate for consideration of the changes.

Every Democrat from Hinds County, which includes Jackson, opposed the bill.

Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, proposed creating a committee to study how the airport could be improved. It was one of eight amendments defeated along party lines.

Wooten, who is black, said she believes the proposed change is racially motivated. She said it reminded her of a time when others treated African-Americans, not just their land, as property.

“That property that that airport sits on is from the blood, hard work, sweat and tears of the people of the city of Jackson. It didn’t belong to you then, and it doesn’t belong to you now,” Wooten said to the bill’s supporters.

Judiciary A Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said the state had also contributed money to the airport and the bill wouldn’t take away revenue that Jackson generates from the airport.

“There is no property-taking here,” Baker said. “There is nothing being taken away from the city of Jackson.”

He said the bill was not racially motivated and that it would allow state officials to hire the most qualified people.

“This is about having the best person for the job - white or black, male or female,” Baker said.

Rep. Christopher Bell, D-Jackson, said the airport was the latest in a series of state agencies to cut ties with Jackson.

Saying Republicans were violating the Tenth Commandment, Bell remarked, “They’ve been coveting our house and our property for years.”

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the state can expect years of lawsuits if the bill becomes law.

“There have been some of us here who have always had to defend our rights outside of the legislative process,” said Blackmon, an attorney. “And that is what we are going to do.”

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

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