February 7, 2013 9:37:01 AM
JACKSON -- House members want to move the Department of Revenue to a new home in Speaker Philip Gunn's district.
The House voted 71-43 Wednesday for House Bill 1337, authored by the Clinton Republican, which would move the agency to the South Pointe complex in Clinton.
The state Department of Finance and Administration has been looking to lease 175,000-square-feet of office space to move the tax collection agency from the leaky warehouse between Raymond and Clinton that has housed it for 17 years.
Democrats question whether it's wise to short-circuit that selection process, especially when the bill doesn't say how much the state would pay.
"This House of Representatives was not hired to pick the best site," said Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. "If we vote for this, we're voting to bypass DFA's professionals."
Gunn helped kill a 2012 bill to move the agency to the Landmark Center, a downtown Jackson building. Senate Public Properties Committee Chairman David Blount, D-Jackson, is pushing that measure again in Senate Bill 2763.
"This decision should not be based on the personal political power of the moment," Blount said. He noted that a study done under Gov. Haley Barbour recommended the state lease or buy the Capitol Street building. Since then, the asking price has been lowered to $7.6 million.
"The best deal for the state is to buy the building and fill it up with the Department of Revenue and other agencies which are paying more than $2 million in rent," Blount said.
Wednesday, the Senate approved another of Blount's bills, Senate Bill 2472, which would put DFA in charge of leasing properties for state agencies and direct the department to move Jackson-area agencies to state-owned buildings in the downtown area when such moves would reduce lease costs.
House Public Properties Chairman Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, urged members to vote for the Clinton site, saying a downtown site would make parking a hassle for visitors. He also questioned whether a downtown site could handle the department's freight needs, although the study said it could.
"You would think on the Clinton site you'd pay more, but the talk I keep hearing is it may not be so," Weathersby said.
He said the former WorldCom headquarters just south of Interstate 20 is "better than any site in the metropolitan area."
In defending the bill, Weathersby persuaded House members to defeat a proposed amendment from Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, to move the department to a site in Pelahatchie, in Weathersby's home county of Rankin.
DFA spokeswoman Kym Wiggins wrote in an email that the agency is studying what it would take to move the Department of Revenue to South Pointe, the Landmark Center and to a site in Ridgeland owned by the real estate arm of Flowood-based refiner Ergon. She said those studies should be complete by Feb. 15, and best offers from the three finalists on lease rates would then be due five working days later.
Wiggins said DFA would keep working on its leasing selection unless lawmakers succeed in getting a bill passed to dictate the choice.
"Should legislation take this path, it would nullify the process we have been going through," Wiggins wrote.