As the state’s economic development activity is being reevaluated and a special legislative session looms on the horizon, the Mississippi Business Journal recently asked Gov. Ronnie Musgrove about changes that may occur, his views on workforce training, the possible restructuring of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development and the role of Mississippi Technologies Inc.
Mississippi Business Journal: This year, there will reportedly be a decrease in funding for community colleges, which is a primary resource for workforce training. Many people believe that stabilized or increased funding for the community colleges is important for workforce training issues. We have a degree of stability in funding for K-12 and four-year colleges because the Ayers desegregation case requires it. Would you favor some mechanism to put community college funding on a level playing field so the funding level would be assured every year?
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove: There is a certain level of federal funding available for a variety of projects like education, transportation and job training. If the state of Mississippi does not access that money, then another state will. A good example of a state that is taking full advantage of that funding is the state of North Carolina, which receives $207 million from federal sources that they use for job training. We are committed to increasing the amount of federal support that the state of Mississippi receives. By maximizing our revenue, being efficient with departmental budgets, organizing a team effort of grant writing, accessing discretionary dollars and private foundations, we will have the funding necessary to fund projects such as workforce training, which can be programmed through our community colleges.
MBJ: Many people believe workforce training is a key element in economic development and should be consolidated under the community colleges. It’s spread through several agencies now. What are your views on how it should be managed?
RM: In an era of growing global competition, Mississippi must have the ability to deliver on its promises related to workforce training. The No. 1 goal for many businesses today is to find a skilled labor force, so our continuing challenge is to help identify and to train our workforce in the skills required by today’s competitive demands. Any discussion of how workforce training and development services can best be delivered must include the key words “comprehensive” and “readily accessible.”
Mississippi is already moving to initiate systemic reforms to improve workforce development programs, and it seems desirable that these services should be delivered from as few points as possible. The guiding objective is to organize employment and training programs into a coherent state system focused on achieving results. We want to use resources efficiently and insure that job seekers, workers and employers can easily access needed services. To accomplish this objective, we are examining what is now a patchwork of federal and state programs and taking into account recent federal mandates on workforce development. We know that coordination is vital across the board, and that the support of the education community, the Legislature and various executive branch agencies are essential. We also realize that we must fully engage the vast resources of our private sector partners because they, after all, are our most valuable customers and most potent allies. We’re going to work more closely with our public and private sector partners to help Mississippi develop to the fullest.
MBJ: If House Bill 1389, which caps agency salaries of public workers, with the exception of the executive director of Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development and governor’s chief of staff, and prohibits private supplemental funding for the same becomes law, is a significant restructuring of MDECD planned? In what other ways will it affect the state’s economic development agency?
RM: The laws, which govern Mississippi’s economic development program, have been largely in place for some 12 years now, passed by the Legislature before widespread use of many of the high-tech innovations we enjoy today such as cell phones, personal computers, the Internet and e-commerce. New means of commerce are emerging every day and Mississippi must be poised to take advantage of them. Building on the existing foundation, we’re moving to fine-tune the state’s economic development program so that it can help raise the standard of living of all Mississippians to a higher level. Rather than comment on a single piece of legislation, let me just say that our basic strategy is to create stronger connections between the public and private sectors, and to work with the members of the Legislature, the recipients of services delivered by the Department of Economic and Community Development, and with other economic development allies and community leaders.
MBJ: Mississippi Technologies Inc. (MTI) brings promise of economic growth to the telecommunications industry in the state. How does it differ from the Institute for Technology Development?
RM: MTI was formed as an umbrella organization to focus attention on science and technology as an economic development tool that can help generate higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs. I expect MTI to partner with existing organizations, such as the ITD, research units of our universities and others to fill essential service gaps in infrastructure supporting technology-based companies. I see MTI as the overall umbrella for strategic planning and for management of our efforts to recruit and nurture technology-based businesses over the long term. High technology jobs are the end result of an innovation process that includes research, product development, company formation, capital investment, company growth and expansion. MTI holds the key to unleashing Mississippi’s huge technological capacity, which in turn holds the key to the creation of high-paying jobs in Mississippi.
MBJ: Do you support the quality jobs bill that would offer financial incentives to attract new companies and help existing companies to expand?
RM: Again, building on the economic development foundation that already exists, we need to ensure that Mississippi remains on the leading edge by offering attractive, realistic and effective programs. Part of that process will revolve around incentives for companies in targeted industrial segments that show the most promise for not only existing but also thriving in Mississippi. The exact nature of such incentives is currently under review but I am confident that we will produce a package that will help achieve the goal of raising the standard of living and quality of life for all Mississippi.
MBJ: What is on your agenda for the upcoming special session on economic development?
RM: We are taking the time to carefully study the laws that govern economic development activities in Mississippi and assess their effectiveness in relation to our major competing states. We’re looking at incentives and disincentives for companies to locate or expand in Mississippi so that we can know which are the most appealing. As soon as this study is complete, I’ll be able to give a more definitive answer on the agenda items of any special legislative session.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.