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Mississippi Taxing – Nuclear Power And Accusations Of Racism via Forbes

Claiborne County,  Mississippi is home to the Grand Gulf Nuclear Generating Station operated by Entergy.  Having one of those things in the neighborhood is a little nerve wracking.  The Nuclear Regulatory Agency defines a plume exposure pathway zone and a larger ingestion pathway zone in the vicinity of the plant, in the event something goes really wrong. On the upside, a power plant could mean a lot of tax revenue and Claiborne County shows up on lists as one of the poorest counties in the country.

Only under Mississippi law a county doesn’t  get to tax a nuclear power plant.  The state taxes the plant and divvies up the money among counties in the plant’s service area.  Some residents claim that the reason for that law is that Claiborne County, home to Mississippi’s only nuclear power plant, has a population that is over 80% African American.  That was what the lawsuit Doss v Claiborne County Board of Supervisors was all about.  Spoiler alert – it did not go well for the disgruntled residents. As is common in these sort of cases, they foundered on the rock of standing.

Some History

Claiborne County has significance in the history of the civil rights movement.  In 1966, African American citizens of Port Gibson, the county seat, started a boycott of white merchants which was suspended after the City hired its first black police officer.  Police shooting in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination rebooted the boycott with leadership from the NAACP and Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, who had been murdered in 1963.  NAACP liability for collateral violence associated with the boycott ended up at the United States Supreme Court, which overturned a Mississippi judgment of $1.2 million against NAACP in 1982.

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And property taxes were a big part of the racial struggle in Claiborne County. […]

At any rate in 2009 Evan Doss Jr went on record supporting the lawsuit.

“I’m not a plaintiff, but I’m supporting them 250 percent,” said Evan Doss Jr., who personally served notice of the suit to Claiborne County supervisors, who are among multiple defendants. His wife, Emma R. Ross, is among multiple plaintiffs.

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The law that stripped Claiborne County of its ability to tax the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant was challenged in the eighties and went up to the Mississippi Supreme Court.  Ironically, the Claiborne County Board of Supervisors was one of the plaintiffs in that case.  The law had required a constitutional amendment, which seems to have consumed most of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s attention in Burrell v Mississippi State Tax Commission.  They did not get into the racial issues, but left an intriguing opening.

[…]

The Burrell plaintiffs allowed their federal claim to be dismissed with prejudice in exchange for a $2 million payment to the county.

Two Narratives

There are, as far as I can tell two explanations for the peculiar handling of the property taxation of Grand Gulf.  One is pretty benign.  The power plant took a long time to build and it was built with borrowed money.  The cost did not go into the rate base until the plant went in service which caused customers to experience sticker shock on their electric bills.  Spreading the extra tax revenue among all the counties in the plant’s service area mitigated that.

The other explanation is less benign.  Racism.  Voting rights legislation and enforcement had allowed African Americans to gain control of government in Claiborne County and the change in the law prevented them from having access to substantial revenue to improve infrastructure and spend on education.  In the wake of Brown v Board of Education white Mississippians had largely abandoned the public schools for segregation academies. Professor Crosby, who was the only white student in her graduating class at Port Gibson High School tends to favor the racism narrative, although she has not studied the power plant issue closely.

Professor Andrew Kahrl of the University of Virginia whose research focuses on “the social, economic, and environmental history of land use, real estate development, and racial inequality in the 20th century United States” has little doubt.

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The Current Case

After nearly thirty years, the claims of racial bias still have not gotten a hearing.  The problem is standing.  A taxpayer does not get to sue about somebody else’s tax breaks.

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