Growing up in Pascagoula, I spent many summer days casting a line in the Mississippi Sound, frequenting numerous piers in Jackson County. When the days got shorter and classes at Arlington Elementary took up most of our time, we frequently raced our bikes to the nearest fishing hole to soak up the last bit of daylight.
Today, as I cherish the memories of life growing up on the Coast, I work to ensure my three young daughters have the same experiences and establish a love and affinity for one of Mississippi’s greatest assets. Upon taking office as the first Secretary of State from the Gulf Coast, I was quickly thrust into a unique perspective and role as the State’s Land Commissioner and Trustee of the Public Trust Tidelands.
Mississippi’s Public Trust Tidelands include all lands beneath waters that are, or were, naturally subject to tidal influence. At the time of statehood in 1817, the Union provided Mississippi with the Public Tidelands Trust. The Trust is based on an ancient practice that by the law of nature, the sea and its shore belong to all mankind.
Due to years of disputes over the upland extent of the state’s control of Public Tidelands and being mindful of the conflicting public purposes of the Trust, the Mississippi Legislature enacted the Tidelands Act of 1989. The Act produced tidelands maps showing the landward extent of state ownership. For example, the 26-mile-long Harrison County sand beach was constructed on state-owned tidelands. The Act also codified the public policy in favor of preserving tidelands and submerged lands in their natural state but allowing the Secretary of State the authority to rent or lease said land. Because the Mississippi Constitution prohibits donating State land to private entities, for-profit use of Public Trust Tidelands requires a lease. A fund was also established to ensure all revenue generated from the leases was used by the Legislature in the three coastal counties to further preserve and protect the Public Trust Tidelands while providing recreational use by all Mississippi citizens.
Since the inception of the Public Trust Tidelands Act, my predecessors and I have fully committed ourselves to protecting this public state asset while balancing opportunities for economic development. I believe my predecessors upheld this duty with the same zeal and respect for the law as this Gulf Coast native, evidenced by the continuous economic growth of the Coast despite the setback of a major hurricane. Unfortunately, not all appreciate the Legislature’s original intent of the Public Trust Tidelands Act to provide stability along the Coast to enhance economic growth.
Over the last 30+ years, as onshore gaming has blossomed and drastically increased Tidelands revenue, the Secretary of State’s Office has been forced into litigation regarding its role as the Trustee of the Public Trust Tidelands. Because Mississippi law requires legislative apportionment of the Tidelands revenue, some local governments attempt to circumvent the statutory lease requirement to maximize revenue for their own jurisdictions while harming neighboring cities and counties.
Ongoing legal battles have extended through multiple administrations and have resulted in court decisions that have sometimes begged more questions than provided answers, in addition to incorporating loopholes in the law. Most recently, based on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in State v. RW Development, the Mississippi Gaming Commission improperly applied the Court’s decision and granted private control for “private opportunities” over the public sand beach existing on state property without a Tidelands lease, an act which appears to be an unlawful donation per Section 95 of the Mississippi Constitution.
This decision seems to contradict federal court decisions affirming the public nature of the sand beach. Additionally, rents for use of the public sand beach for “private opportunities” are retained by the local government instead of deposited in the legislatively established trust fund intended to benefit the entire Coast. This is money taken away from the other coastal counties, cities, and all Mississippians.
As stated in my oath of office, I have a constitutional and statutory responsibility to uphold the law as enacted by the Mississippi Legislature. I again implore them to reaffirm the State’s ownership, management, and control of and over the state-owned Public Trust Tidelands and restore the original intent of the Public Trust Tidelands Act.
If not, since the Trust is to benefit all Mississippians, then all Mississippians will lose.
Secretary of State
State of Mississippi
Elizabeth Holbert Johnson
email@example.com | 601-927-8688