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State, federal legislation has a big impact on tech economy

Send in the clow…er, politicians

How is Mississippi poised to compete in the new technology economy? Is state legislation keeping up with tech laws necessary to promote both industries that produce high-tech equipment and businesses that are benefitting from the technology to improve their productivity?

Len Vernamonti, senior advisor to the Institute for Technology Development (ITD), a non-profit corporation established to help create technology-based economic development in the state, says that tech laws are important not just to the technical industries, but to all businesses in Mississippi.

“The telecommunications technology is pervasive,” he said. “There is no industry that can avoid its impact.”

For example, the Mississippi Legislature passed legislation in 1999 which made it the only state in the country where it is illegal to practice telemedicine across state lines. A specialist in Birmingham, for example, would not be allowed to receive medical test information by e-mail and then do a diagnosis and write a prescription. Any physician who practices on patients in Mississippi must be licensed to practice medicine in the state.

Vernamonti doesn’t believe that kind of law makes sense for physicians. It could be argued that lawyers need to be licensed in the state where they practice since states laws vary widely. But, as Vernamonti puts it, a kidney in Alabama is the same as a kidney in Mississippi.

Other legislation has had a more positive impact. A state law passed two years ago that overturned a law that made it difficult to sell custom commercial software and hardware in the state. The law prevented disclaiming any implied and expressed warranties on a product. A company selling custom software or hardware couldn’t negotiate warranty provisions as a part of the sales contact. That made liability too great for doing large custom software and hardware projects.

Not all the Legislature’s efforts to promote a good environment for high-tech industries has been a success. Vernamonti said about five years ago the state passed a law which gave the same economic development incentives to intellectual property companies (telecommunications and electronic’s companies) as applies to manufacturers. But the state tax collector’s office ruled it wouldn’t recognize the law.

“There can be a problem when a law is passed, but there are differing interpretations of the law,” Vernamonti said.

It can be somewhat difficult at times to garner support for tech law changes because there aren’t that many high-tech companies in Mississippi. However, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of the tech industries, and efforts made to promote workforce development. Vernamonti believes that is the single most significant thing the state can do to encourage high-tech industries — and the better paying jobs they bring — in Mississippi.

Vernamonti also recommends a comprehensive review of the whole area of tech law. Some issues that need to be resolved concern issues such as what constitutes a legal e-mail signature. “Electronic government” is also a big issue regarding filing tax returns on the Internet, applying for a driver’s license and other business conducted by citizens and the government.

Pete Walley, director of Long Range Economic Development Planning at the University Research Center, also believes that attention should be focused on making the state competitive in the new technology economy.

“My personal view is that from a broad perspective, Mississippians have not fully understood the importance of ‘high-tech’ things and their relationship to the changing economy and to our efforts in economic development,” Walley said. “There are several good efforts underway in the state relative to technology, but they are still confined to small groups of concerned people that are somewhat fragmented in their efforts. If we believe that a fundamental structural change in the economy is underway relative to technology and that there will be disruptions and rearrangements in our economy and society, then the policy issues must move to systemic and broad-based efforts.”

Walley said that central bankers, by the nature of their training and job, are cautious. So when the chief central banker, Alan Greenspan, announces that there is an ongoing technological leap, and attributes to it changes in macroeconomic dynamics, then it is truly time to sit up and pay attention. Greenspan says he sees “a deep-seated, still developing shift in our economic landscape” caused by “an unexpected leap in technology.”

“The words ‘technology’ and ‘high-tech’ can have several meanings, depending on what one wants to convey with the words, but think of technology as something useful,” Walley said.

“It might be a device, a process or a concept. The term ‘high-tech’ is relative in that one industry’s technology needs may be much greater than another. We usually think of high-tech in the absolute sense, but it can apply to basic industries as well as the communication/information technology sectors. In the economic sense, it is a tool that we can use to increase productivity.”

Professor Michael Porter, who recently was in Mississippi promoting his idea of cluster development of an industry, said “a rising standard of living depends on the capacity of a nation’s firms to achieve high levels of productivity and to increase productivity over time.”

Walley said the following are some of the “higher-tech” systemic actions that could be used to move those policy issues to a broader basis:

• Cooperation: provide an ongoing statewide forum for collaboration among the many and various groups concerned with technologies.

• Universal access: aggressively advocate access to emerging technologies for individuals, businesses, educational and cultural institutions, and not-for-profits.

• Connectivity: encourage statewide compatibility and connectivity of technologies-video, voice, and data in all areas of the state.

• Lifelong Learning: promote the importance of lifelong learning to the state’s citizens and support the use of technology for lifelong learning.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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