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Mississippi House is trying to help,...

Mississippi House is trying to help, not hurt, Jackson

By: Trey Lamar - February 19, 2023

Mississippi House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File - Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

HB 1020 is a worthy piece of legislation carefully tailored to improve public safety and the climate for economic activity in Jackson.

Expanding Mississippi’s investment in the judicial resources of Jackson through HB 1020 is a good faith effort at helping the people who live in Jackson and those who visit our Capital City. The seventy-six men and women in your Mississippi House who voted to advance the legislation did so out of concern and compassion, with a sense of duty to help Mississippi’s Capital.

To be maligned, and to see my colleagues maligned, by a radical mayor and an activist media that are far more interested in sowing discord than solving problems is disappointing, but not unexpected. At times, sensationalism sells better than the truth, unfortunately.

But for those who don’t mind thinking and questioning false narratives, here’s why we voted to provide new law enforcement and judicial resources to Jackson, some of the history behind the Capitol Complex Improvement District, and the truth about what HB 1020 does and does not do.

It is a worthy piece of legislation carefully tailored to improve public safety and the climate for economic activity in Jackson.

Our Concern is the Safety of Jackson’s People & the Success of Mississippi’s Capital City

Residents of Jackson have been through a lot in recent years. Much ink could be devoted here to crumbling infrastructure, a failing water system, or internal political feuds between the mayor and his city council over something as simple as garbage collection.

But the genesis of HB 1020 was the need for public safety. Spikes in both violent and property crime have made it so that families don’t feel safe in their own communities. Many who live outside of Jackson literally fear traveling to their Capital City. For two years in a row, Jackson has been saddled with the highest per capita murder rate in the nation.

This tragic distinction not only impacts the people who live in Jackson, but also those who run businesses or work there. Convincing people to cross over from surrounding communities, to shop, eat or do business, is difficult if folks are worried about their safety. But convincing people to continue living, working, and doing business in Jackson is essential for the City’s survival. A thriving metropolitan area could greatly benefit Mississippi’s economy and its people.

Due in no small part to the spike in violent crime, Hinds County courts have become overwhelmed with a backlog of cases. This impacts every facet of the system. There are too few law enforcement officers, too few prosecutors, too few public defenders, and too few judges to effectively administer justice.

The Capitol Complex Improvement District Was Created in 2017 to Help

The Capitol Complex Improvement District was created in 2017 with the bipartisan passage of HB 1226.  Importantly, the Jackson legislative delegation largely supported its creation. Three ideas were at play. First, Mississippi’s state government and agency buildings take up a significant footprint in Jackson. It was thought that the state needed to provide additional infrastructure and safety for state government buildings.

Sen. John Horhn (D-Jackson), at the time, explained that “[w]ith this next effort with the Capitol City complex and infrastructure fund, we want the State to finally take responsibility, direct responsibility, for a lot of the infrastructure around this $5.6 billion worth of real estate in state-owned buildings that are not subject to taxation.”

The effort was also seen as a way to alleviate pressure on the City of Jackson, freeing up its own limited resources to focus on other areas of the city. Then-Mayor Tony Yarber (D) expressed support for the effort because it allowed him to keep and use more resources for those areas outside of the CCID, “[e]ven if there are boundaries, what it gives me the opportunity to do is not worry about what’s inside the boundaries. We can worry about what’s outside the boundaries.”

Finally, the CCID carried an economic purpose. The original lines were drawn to include key business areas that serve as economic engines for Jackson. This included stretching west to Jackson State University and north to the Fondren business district.

This effort, which was sponsored by Jackson Republican Rep. Bill Denny and co-sponsored by Jackson Democratic Reps. Deborah Dixon and Alyce G. Clarke, was not considered to be racist, but a new partnership between the State and the City.  The final vote on HB 1226 in the Mississippi House was 105-13.

Expanding the State’s Investment

The COVID pandemic brought a spike in violent crime across the country. Jackson was hit especially hard. In March of 2021, it was reported that there were nearly 2,600 open cases in Hinds County.

In 2021, the Governor, legislative leadership and the Mississippi Supreme Court came together to provide Cares Act funding to help aid the Hinds County Justice System. The Supreme Court appointed three judges, including retired Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson, to help with the backlog of cases. The temporary Cares Act funding lasted until the close of 2021.

In 2022, the Legislature appropriated American Rescue Plan dollars to help aid the Hinds County Justice System, including $700,000 for help in the Public Defenders’ office. The Mississippi Supreme Court again appointed three judges to help with the case backlog, but again, this was considered temporary help.

In an interview with WLBT, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens acknowledged last year that “crime is the most critical thing in our community right now, the murder rate has to stop.” In that same interview, Owens expressed support for efforts to appoint judges to address the backlog of cases. He explained that “our current judges are working really hard, but they have half civil and half criminal dockets, so with a spike in crime, we need other judges to assist.”

The funding for these appointments ran out in January of this year.

The Point of the Inferior Court Is to Help Alleviate Backlog & Dispense Justice

That there is a tremendous backlog of criminal cases and a very real need for help is unquestioned. Experts agree that timely apprehension and prosecution is pivotal to reducing crime. Providing the needed help to protect public safety is the point of increasing the number of judges available to hear cases.

Much has been made of HB 1020’s creation of  a court that will be staffed by appointed judges. The most scandalous claim is that the bill attempts to disenfranchise voters and diminish the importance of elected judges in Hinds County. This claim is incorrect.

Section 172 of the Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to establish “inferior courts.” These courts are inferior because they are subject to the authority of constitutional courts, like Circuit Courts. Some examples of legislatively created inferior courts include County Courts and Youth Courts, which are common throughout the state. These courts have limited jurisdiction and their decisions can be appealed to the Circuit or Chancery Court.  And importantly, the judges in many of these inferior courts are appointed.  No claims of racial animus or other nefarious motives were made when these courts were created.

Additionally, there are multiple judicial districts throughout the state where a party might have to appear in their county of residence before a judge that he or she did not vote for.  For example, in my own district residents of Tate County routinely are required to appear in front of a judge who was elected from Desoto County.  The glaring hypocrisy here is that some of the same democrats who are now claiming racism are the same individuals who instituted our judicial framework throughout the state when they once controlled the MS House of Representatives. 

HB 1020’s creation of an inferior court does not replace the Hinds County Circuit or Chancery Court or diminish their authority, nor is it an attempt to disenfranchise voters. This new court would be under the supervision of the judges elected to those courts by the people of Hinds County.

The truth is that there are judges appointed to handle cases throughout Mississippi, including the six that were appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2021 and 2022 to help in Hinds County.

That help was welcomed. There were no mentions of racial motivations or disenfranchisement when those judges were appointed. But the funds for those appointed judges were temporary.  Additional funding had to be secured at each turn. HB 1020 merely replaces what was an ad hoc funding approach with a stable stream of funding.

Protecting Jackson’s Economic Engine to Prevent Death Spiral

Some critics of HB 1020 have argued that the expansion of the CCID’s boundaries is, in itself, evidence of racial discrimination. What those critics fail to mention is that the newly proposed CCID boundaries encompass an area that remains “majority-minority,” meaning that the district’s residents remain predominantly African American.

Moreso, what these critics fail to appreciate is that the proposed lines strategically encompass the main economic and business corridors of Jackson. When the original CCID was passed, with overwhelming bipartisan support and the support of Jackson leadership, a similar goal was openly expressed about the Fondren Business District. It was understood by all involved that there were areas of the city that were responsible for jobs, business activity, and tax collection that were essential to the long-term survival of the city.

Six years later, with not only a crime spike, but a myriad of other challenges, the need to prevent people and businesses from leaving Jackson is all the more pressing. Importantly, the added protection offered in the CCID by HB 1020 comes at no cost to Jackson because the new funding comes directly from the state.  As before, it would allow the city to concentrate its limited resources in a smaller footprint, and all of the property and sales taxes normally derived by Jackson from businesses and individuals in the CCID would remain in place.

Caution in Believing People Who Seek to Divide Us

Legislators sometimes find themselves in a Catch-22 in the current environment. There are people who will label us horrible things if we do nothing to help. And some of those same people will label us horrible things if when we act, we do not act exactly as they wanted.  

Unfortunately, there are people in Mississippi who believe they can gain political power by playing on past injustices without focusing on the truth of today.  There are people outside of Mississippi who are all too eager to sell a negative impression of our state. 

But I, and most Mississippians, know better. Mississippi is filled with good people with big hearts; people who know we should work together for the betterment of all Mississippians and leave the stale rhetoric in the past. This is exactly why we must do what we believe is right regardless of what critics will say.

The truth is that HB 1020 is intended to help Jackson be a better Capital City for all Mississippians. There is always room for improvement, but fictional, charged attacks on the character of people who are trying to help is counterproductive. Both Jackson, and Mississippi more broadly, deserve better.

About the Author(s)
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Trey Lamar

Trey Lamar represents House District 8 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He is currently the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Lamar earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Mississippi, J.D. from the Mississippi College School of Law, and LL.M. in Taxation from Washington University in St. Louis.