By Jeff Wagner, Shareholder
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C.

As I write this, the country is just starting to feel the effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Here in Mississippi, most schools are closed, state employees have been sent home, the Governor has ordered the closure of casinos and most grocery stores are picked over. At the recommendation of the State Health Officer, on March 17, 2020, the Mississippi Legislature suspended its 2020 Regular Session until sometime after March 31, 2020.

Now is a good time to take a look at the Legislature’s activities so far this session. It is anyone’s guess what the Legislature’s priorities will be when it returns to Jackson, but my guess is that it will predominantly be concerned with actions to help with recovery from the effects of the pandemic. That makes contact with your local legislators all the more important if any of the bills identified below are of interest to you or your airport.

As might be expected with a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor and many new faces in the Legislature, the number of bills this year seems lower than in previous years. However, there are several bills filed (some of which have been enacted) that I think may generally be of interest to airports in the state. Copies of these bills and other pending legislation (which can be located in numerous ways, including by keyword search or section of the Mississippi Code that the legislation would affect) are available on the Mississippi Legislature’s website that can be accessed here.  In addition, the Legislature’s website provides links to legislator biographical and contact information, committee membership, committee meeting schedules, deadlines and a wealth of other information.

The bills I have identified that I think may be of general interest to airports in the state include the following:

House Bill 1647 (passed prior to suspension of the session; signed bill expected back from Governor by March 24, 2020) authorizes county boards of supervisors, municipal governing authorities and local school boards to grant paid administrative leave to employees in the event of a declared state of emergency. I expect the intent was to include all units of local government (airport authorities, housing authorities, port authorities, etc.), but the use of specific terms like “counties,” “board of supervisors,” “municipalities” and “local school boards” leaves this very much in question. For any airport authorities that intend to make use of this provision, I would strongly urge talking to your local legislators about correcting the language when the Legislature returns to session.

House Bill 531 and Senate Bill 2309 are each intended to improve communications between local governments and nearby military installations to help ensure consideration of the impact of land development on military use and operations. The House bill only provides for communications with the potentially affected military installation, while the Senate bill would make a representative of a neighboring military installation an ex-officio member of the appropriate planning or zoning board. Although these bills are not limited to alternative energy facilities, the increasing proliferation of alternative energy generating facilities such as wind turbine and, to a lesser extent, solar cause concern for the military due to potential impacts on military training operations in the state. The House version has passed the House and been transmitted to the Senate, and the Senate version has passed the Senate and been transmitted to the House. Although it may come down to conference between the House and Senate to determine which one, it appears a version will be enacted this year.

House Bill 229 would revise the Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008 to require each municipality with a population of 10,000 or more and each county with a population of 20,000 or more to create a “transparency website” to make budget and other financial information available to the public on an “easily searchable” website. Interestingly, the requirement for counties also applies to any “agency” or “bureau” of the county. The same language is not used for municipalities. As currently written, the provision would apply to county airport authorities. This bill has passed the House and has been transmitted to the Senate for consideration.

House Bill 407 would create exceptions from the requirement for local governments to use the reverse auction form of procurement in certain circumstances. Since the Legislature imposed the reverse auction requirement on local governments a few years ago, a number of airports have reported problems using the process, including lack of response to solicitations and inflated prices. Although this bill was “double referred,” meaning that it was referred to two separate House Committees for consideration (bills rarely survive double referral), it was passed by the House and transmitted to the Senate for consideration prior to the suspension of the Session. Similar bills filed in the Senate this year did not make it past committee level, so anyone in favor of this change would be wise to start talking to his or her local senator(s).

House Bill 1438 and Senate Bill 2515 would each require any public employee whose job includes the handling of public funds to post bond in an amount of $25,000.00 as security for the faithful performance of his or her duties.

Senate Bill 2112 is a “ban the check the box” law which would prohibit public employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history prior to being considered for a specific position and having an interview with the public employer. This prohibition would not apply if “a public employer is required under state or federal law to obtain a criminal history as a preliminary qualification to be considered for public employment.”

Senate Bill 2341 would create a revolving loan fund administered by the Mississippi Development Authority to provide loans (up to $250,000) for emergency repairs to infrastructure. The initial funding for the program would be $10,000,000, and the fund would be available to counties with a population of less than 30,000 and municipalities with a population of less than 10,000.

If you have a position on these or any other bills, I would encourage you to contact your local State Representative and State Senator. If you know the Chair or Vice-Chair of a legislative committee to which a bill has been assigned, I would encourage you to reach out to that person as well.

Jeff Wagner is a shareholder in the Jackson, Mississippi, office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., and may be reached at 601-973-3610 or by email at [email protected]