JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba believes a bill that would require the city’s infrastructure sales tax to go to water and sewer only is a violation of federal voting laws.
“I believe it’s a violation of the Voting Rights Act,” he said, “because people went to the polls, they voted for something in the form that they believed it to be in, and then the legislature went and amended it.”
Lumumba was referring to one of several bills making its way through the State Capitol in response to the city’s ongoing water woes.
That measure, H.B. 1168, would mandate that revenues from a special one-percent tax approved by voters back in 2014 be used only for water and sewer.
It was passed by the House last week. It was authored by Rep. Trey Lamar, of Senatobia.
Lamar said the bill would ensure the city would have a steady revenue stream especially as it struggles to collect on its water bills.
Many members of the Jackson delegation, though, questioned why the state needed to pass that legislation now when more than $800 million in federal funding had been allocated to fix the system.
The mayor had similar concerns.
“Anyone who would make a decision to vote for that, the understanding that they have is about a mile long and inch deep,” Lumumba said during his Monday press conference. “If you don’t look at the comprehensive nature of what we have to deal with as a city, then you’re setting the stage for only more complications to take place going forward.”
Lumumba, meanwhile, says the voters approved the measure understanding the money could be used for all infrastructure needs.
In January 2014, nearly 90 percent of people casting ballots in a special referendum voted in favor of implementing the one-percent assessment, which, according to a copy of the sample ballot, would “provide funds for road and street repair, reconstruction and resurfacing projects based on traffic patterns, need and usage, and to pay the costs of water, sewer and drainage projects within the city.”
Rep. De’Keither Stamps, who was a member of the Jackson City Council at the time the tax was voted in, voiced similar concerns during the House floor debate.
“It… delineated streets and other infrastructure projects. It also said it would be done on traffic patterns, need, and usage as well,” Stamps said, referring to the ballot initiative language.
The mayor said this year’s effort isn’t the first time lawmakers have worked to change the tax.
Back in 2014, lawmakers amended state statute to prevent it from assessed on “wholesale sales of food and drink for human consumption sold to full-service vending machine operators” and “wholesale sales of light wine, beer and alcoholic beverages.”
That provision was buried in a larger bond bill and signed into law the same year residents voted to implement the tax.
“I think it was a disservice to the residents that even after the referendum was passed, there was an amendment to the referendum to exclude things like sin tax,” he said. “Sin tax is something that would have raised the level of funds that we would have had available not only to deal with roads, but to deal with the various components of water in our city.”
Past actions aside, Lumumba said members of Jackson’s one-percent oversight commission also don’t support the current legislation.
The commission is a 10-member panel that was put in place to draw up a master plan and ensure tax revenues are spent in compliance with it.
Commissioner Pete Perry previously told WLBT he supported the bill’s reporting requirements, but also questioned why the state needed to approve the measure with more than $800 million in federal allocations on the way.
“City has hundreds of millions now for water. The $13 million to $14 million from the one-percent tax would be like spitting in the ocean,” he said in a text. “Or, in this case, the reservoir.”
Commission Vice-Chair Duane O’Neill, meanwhile, shared similar sentiments, saying Jackson has so many infrastructure needs that it’s “hard to put it in one basket.”
The commission itself has been a point of contention with some city leaders, including former Mayor Harvey Johnson and the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, the current mayor’s father.
Three oversight members are appointed by the mayor, while four are appointed by the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership and one each is appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and governor.
“We certainly don’t agree with the paternalistic nature that we have a commission over us when no other city does,” Lumumba said. “But their own appointees don’t agree with limiting the [use of the one-percent tax] in that way.”
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