By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman wants to stop a House-passed bill that he says will weaken his authority to make sure local school districts get the best deal possible when leasing 16th Section land.
“I am opposed to this legislation,” said Hosemann, a Republican in his first term. “It is a step backward, a long step backward for Mississippi.”
House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the legislation is only an effort to clarify that local school districts, if they follow strict state law, can lease 16th Section land without the consent of the secretary of state’s office.
But Brown said Hosemann’s office still would have oversight authority and could intervene if it discovered problems in the leases.
“We are not taking oversight away from the secretary of state,” Brown said.
Sixteenth Section land is set aside to provide revenue to local school districts. Sixty-two counties in Mississippi have 16th Section land totaling 640,000 acres, but many counties in north Mississippi, including much of Northeast Mississippi, do not.
Those counties, including Lee, are in what is known as the Chickasw Cession, and under a U.S. Supreme Count ruling and ensuing state legislation, get state funds equal to what is derived from 16th Section land, minus oil and gas revenue.
Part of the controversy surrounding the legislation is a result of Mississippi’s history regarding 16th Section land. For years, until reforms began in the late 1970s, people received what Hosemann referred to as “brother-in-law deals,” getting long-term leases for practically nothing.
Reforms of the 16th Section lease process gave the secretary of state’s office additional oversight authority. Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus instituted many of the reforms. He was followed by Eric Clark, who continued that oversight.
Some, including Hosemann, would say he has taken the oversight authority to a new level. He has entered into a contract with the state Forestry Commission and with the state geologist to help districts manage the 16th Section land. In addition, he has tried to put all 16th Section leases online to provide transparency.
Starting July 1, 2008, Hosemann also has required school districts to allow his office to sign off on leases.
The House bill, which passed the House 109-7 and is expected to be considered in the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, would change that.
Brown and Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said current law does not give Hosemann the authority to sign off on a lease before a district enters into it.
“This is just a clarifying amendment,” Baker said. “I really don’t see what the problem is.”
Baker said he admires Hosemann’s work in preserving and increasing 16th Section revenue, but the concern over the House bill “is making a mountain over a mole hill … This is a proposal to help local school boards. They are doing their jobs. They are following the statutes. They have the opinions of their counsel. If everything is good, they should be allowed to move forward.”
Baker said the reforms put in place in the 1970s and ’80s would remain intact. School boards would have to get a certified appraisal when leasing land and would have to go through a public bid process for other activities, such as leasing timber.
The boards of supervisors also have a role in ensuring that the leases are proper.
The bill says that as long as the school board follows the law and acts on the advice of its attorney, the leases would be valid. If the secretary of state found a problem with the process, the bill would give him the authority to take the school board to court to find the lease invalid.
Baker and Brown said they heard complaints from school boards and individuals obtaining 16th Section leases that Hosemann’s office is slowing the process, costing school districts money.
Hosemann said that is not true. He said his office acts on the leases on the average of nine days. He said that in his first year in office, he rejected 7 percent of the leases and less than 5 percent the following two years.
He said the House bill would create tension between his office and the school boards because for him to have input he would have to take them to court.
“That is not a good business practice,” he said.
He said that working together 16th Section revenue has increased. In Pearl River County, he said, his office found that a person who won a timber contract on 16th Section land did not pay for all the timber he cut. The person was charged with a crime and civil action was taken to recoup the lost timber revenue
Under the current process, Hosemann said revenue from 16th Section land is increasing, and thus revenue for Chickasaw Cession counties is doing the same.
In 2007-’08, the year before Hosemann took office, 16th Section revenue was $77.1 million. For the past year, it was $79.7 million. Hosemann said it would have increased more if not for a large decline in oil and gas revenue.
Oil and gas revenue was $31.1 million in 2007-’08 and had dropped to $17.5 million in ’09-’10. That decline, he said, has been offset by increases in timber sales.
That increase has helped the Chickasaw Cession counties. In ’07-’08, revenue for Chickasaw Cession counties was $11.1 million. It is projected to be $16 million this fiscal year and $19.9 million by the following year.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (602) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.