EDITORIAL: 16th Section protection

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi House passage – without public hearings – of a bill that would eliminate the secretary of state as a co-signer of 16th Section land lease agreements appears to unnecessarily remove an administratively imposed due diligence action that has helped raise 16th section revenues for schools to record levels.
The bill, HR 1278, specifically excludes the secretary of state – the office most active in managing 16th Section and other public lands, plus Chickasaw Cession funds for public schools in 20 northern Mississippi counties.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann set the administrative rule of a sign-off by his office in 2008, and since then revenues from 16th Section lands in 62 counties have risen from $55 million to $79 million.
Chickasaw Cession funds have increased from virtually nothing before the 1980s to $11 million in 2007, to $19.99 million for 2012 under the co-signature rule.
Hosemann’s concern rises from a sordid past of 16th Section and Chickasaw Cession land mismanagement in Mississippi. Reforms began in the 1970s under the late Land Commissioner John Ed Ainswroth, followed by more reforms under secretaries of state Dick Molpus, Eric Clark and Hosemann, all intent on ensuring fair return from lease contracts.
All 16th Section lands date from the federal Land Ordinance of 1785 which set aside every 16th section of land in every township, for public schools. In 1803, Congress passed laws providing for the sale of all land south of Tennessee, and made provision for the reservation of Section Sixteen in each township. Sixteenth Section Land is also known as Public School Trust Land.
In 1832, the Chickasaw Cession gave to the United States all the land controlled by the Chickasaw nation in northern Mississippi on a line made by extending the boundary line between present day Coahoma and Tunica counties in a southeasterly direction to a point on the old Natchez Trace in Webster County and then across Clay County in a generally southeasterly direction to a point on the Tombigbee River.
Chickasaw Cession 16th Section lands never materialized, and the Legislature’s 19th century decision to sell in lieu land led to investment in railroad bonds, wiped out by the Civil War. It was not until the 1980s that secretary of state advocacy led to the Legislature making annual appropriations to school districts in the Chickasaw Cession area to compensate for this lost source of local education funding.
Lee County schools, for example, received $630,000 in 2007 and will get $1.12 million in 2012; Tupelo’s schools received $729,000 in 2007 and expect to get $1.255 million in 2012.
Out of an abundance of caution, we believe Secretary Hosemann needs to be heard before action by the Senate Education Committee, whose chairman is Sen. Vidette Carmichael, R-Meridian.
Hosemann’s administrative decision to require his signature on leases adds another, apparently productive layer of due diligence to an exceptionally important source of income for public education. If it is not legal it should be made legal.
Hosemann noted in a Friday interview with the Daily Journal that 16th Section lands include some of the state’s most valuable real estate – downtown business districts, malls and retail centers, oil and gas fields, and vast forest lands. The total is 620,000 acres.
Such a vast public resource requires comprehensive oversight and regular examination for compliance.
The goal should be maximum return from the asset, not who controls the decisions.