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Mississippi Senate votes to change control of Jackson's troubled water system

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For the second year in a row, the Mississippi Senate has passed a bill that would transfer control of the state capital city's troubled water system to a regional board.

Republican Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch introduced a slightly modified version of the bill after last year's version died in the House. The proposal drew fierce opposition from Jackson officials, who said the Republican-controlled Legislature was usurping the authority of local leaders, most of whom are Democrats.

Almost every Senate Democrat voted against the bill again Tuesday before it passed 35-14. The legislation was held for the possibility of more debate in the Senate. It eventually would go to the House.

The bill would create a corporate nonprofit known as the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Authority to govern Jackson's water system. It would be overseen by a nine-member board, with one appointment by the mayor, two by the Jackson City Council, three by the governor and three by the lieutenant governor. Under the bill’s original version, city officials would not have had any appointments.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba opposes the bill, saying it’s an example of the majority-white and Republican-led Legislature trying to seize control from a majority-Black city.

Parker said the bill would help address issues that have disrupted the utility on numerous occasions and left residents without consistent access to running water. Infrastructure breakdowns in 2022 caused some Jackson residents to go weeks without water for their basic needs.

Parker’s district is in northwest Mississippi, but he lives with his daughter at an apartment complex in Jackson when the Legislature is in session. He said scooping up water from the building’s swimming pool to use in their shared apartment’s toilets is part of what motivated him to write the bill.

“To be continually hearing and seeing in the newspapers that I have no business as a customer of the Jackson water authority to be addressing this situation is, at the very least, concerning to me," Parker said on the Senate floor.

Two Democratic senators who represent parts of Jackson — Sollie Norwood and Hillman Frazier — peppered Parker with questions about why he didn't meet with them before introducing the proposal.

“Senator Parker, you do realize I represent the city of Jackson ... and you have not said one word to me regarding this,” Norwood said.

Parker responded that he had his assistant place memos on senators' desks and that he had incorporated feedback from various people in Jackson. Parker pointed to support from Ted Henifin, the manager appointed by a federal court in December 2022 to manage the water system on an interim basis.

"It appears that many of the comments I provided during the last session regarding the bill introduced in 2023 were taken to heart and this bill now includes many of the suggestions I made at that time,” Henifin said in a statement.

Among the comments Henifin provided was that federal funds should only be used within the areas served by Jackson’s water system. Jackson-area lawmakers had been concerned that hundreds of millions in federal funds approved by Congress to fix the city's water system would be diverted to other areas.

The bill has been designed to ensure there is a governance structure in place when Henifin leaves Jackson and the federal funds run out, Parker said. The federal order appointing Henifin does not have a termination date on his appointment as Jackson's water manager.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.