Rural water oversight may be revived with attempt to amend bill

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – A proposal to place Mississippi’s rural water associations under the regulatory authority of the three-member Public Service Commission could be revived in the state Legislature.
Bills proposed by Lee County legislators to place additional regulations on the rural water associations died last week when they were not taken up in committee.
But Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersille, is attempting to amend a Public Service Commission bill to give the three-member panel regulatory authority over the rural water associations.
“I want this to be a subject of debate this session,” Holland said. “I think 95 percent of the rural water associations do a spectacular job, but even 5 percent is reason for some oversight.
“If you are doing your job, you have no reason to worry. But good, safe drinking water for every citizen of this state is important to me.”
Before Holland can continue with his proposal, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, must rule on whether the Lee County lawmaker can amend legislation that simply re-authorizes the Public Service Commission. Periodically, the Legislature takes up what is normally routine legislation to extend various state agencies.
Holland’s amendment to the otherwise routine bill would say the PSC has regulatory authority over the rural water associations in terms of rates they charge, open meetings and records and service.
But Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, raised the point of order that Holland’s amendment changed the meaning of the bill. It is not clear when Gunn will rule on the point of order, which will determine whether Holland can offer his amendment. He could, in theory, not rule in the coming days and wait for the House to get a similar bill that passed the Senate.
Holland, along with fellow Lee County legislators, Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, and Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, filed bills related to the rural water associations in response to troubles related to the North Lee County Water Association.
All of the legislation died in committee, leaving Holland’s amendment effort as perhaps the only alternative to deal with the issue this session.
Last year various allegations, including instances of association employees doing work on private property and of improper testing of water, surfaced against the North Lee County Water Association.
The allegations are still under investigation.
Hundreds of rural water associations operate throughout the state. They set their own rates and governance policies. As a collective group, the Mississippi Rural Water Association has opposed the efforts of the Lee County legislators to require more oversight.
The House has passed legislation that would require more training of the members of the boards that govern the rural water associations. The legislation now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis, said the association members supported the additional training provisions.
“They see the need for it,” Mettetal said. “They are pushing it, along with the Board of Health.”
bobby.harrison@journalin.com