JACKSON — Since Gov. Ronnie Musgrove unveiled the Advantage Mississippi Initiative on Aug. 7, the state’s proposed new economic development plan has met with little opposition, only scant skepticism primarily from legislators who simply want more details before the upcoming special session on Aug. 28.
On the morning of the press conference, Musgrove briefed legislators on the general plan in a meeting in Biloxi, where nearly 2,000 people attended the 54th-annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference, an organization established in 1947 as the southern regional component, representing 16 Southern states from Texas to West Virginia, of the Council of State Governments.
“The leadership of the House and Senate reviewed the plan and is very positive about economic development in our state,” Musgrove said shortly afterward. “I believe the Legislature will pass and put on my desk the new plan.”
Travis Little (D-Corinth), president pro tempore of the Senate, said the governor’s plan was well received by legislators.
“Those who have seen the general plan know its potential,” Little said. After state Sen. Bill Minor (D-Holly Springs), chairman of the finance and vice chairman of the rules committees, reviewed the first draft of legislation with Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development Executive Director J.C. Burns late Monday afternoon, he liked what he saw, he said.
“One of the incentives we really need to offer industries coming into the state is more than one year’s training program at community colleges,” he said. “We need to be able to offer three or four years of training programs. It’s better for us, too. It pays our people more money and it makes more money for companies when you can train their workers.”
A couple of items in the bill — GAP Community Zones and the Advantage Job Program — look good, Minor said.
“I haven’t seen anything that wouldn’t be good for us,” he said.
The Senate finance committee will meet in room 216 of the Capitol at 2 p.m. on Aug. 23 and 9 a.m. on Aug. 24 to review the proposed legislation with Burns.
There’s still not a price tag on the economic development package, Minor said.
“Sooner or later, we might have to put money into it, but right now, there’s no money in this,” he said.
Secretary of State Eric Clark, who earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation on the history of the state’s economic development efforts, said Mississippians are at a point where they have to work smart to build the economy.
“One thing is certain: government leaders must cooperate very closely with on-the-ground business leaders to create an economic development model that works today,” Clark said. “Whether we’re talking about training our workers, investing in infrastructure improvements or targeting tax incentives, our efforts must be focused and cost-effective. Clearly, Gov. Musgrove understands all that. I think he is on the right track.”
Attorney General Mike Moore said he has not reviewed the plan and declined to comment about specific details.
“The governor made an announcement last week about a proposed statewide mentoring initiative, but that was totally separate from the economic development plan,” he said. “The press called me about that and I told them, ‘sounds good, but we’ve had one going for about three years now with about five or six different programs.’ From that standpoint, that program was a duplicate program. I’m not saying there are any duplicate programs in the new economic development plan. I haven’t studied it yet.”
Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, and former head of MDECD, said the new economic development plan makes good business sense.
“When I read the plan (Governor Ray) Mabus had developed, I told (Governor Kirk) Fordice it was good stuff that we could change, add to and move along,” he said. “We upgraded it constantly. I’m not opposed at all to what Musgrove is doing. I’m not against amending the state’s plan or getting up a new plan. That’s exactly what should be done every year. What happens if another state adds a program? When that happens, maybe we need to revise ours. That’s why good strategic plans are constantly being revised.”
State Sen. Bill Canon (R-Columbus), vice chairman of the economic development, tourism and parks committee, said he wasn’t convinced — yet.
“Some people say they thought the governor was trying to control each county and each city in economic development, where it is now done individually,” Canon said. “I haven’t seen that in the plan, but we haven’t seen the bill, either. Obviously, it’s a power grab to see if he, by himself and his people, can offer greater incentives to industries that come into the state, perhaps greater than Mississippi taxpayers would like to provide. It might be a good idea to offer. Might not be. I’m not real sure that we should let the governor have that process to determine the amount of bonds and this type thing that is usually reserved for the Legislature.”
A few people have raised eyebrows about the name change of Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development to Mississippi Development Authority, prompting a question about the difference in power between agencies, authorities and departments.
“The code books and the law dictionaries use the terms interchangeably,” said Martin Hegwood, an attorney in the secretary of state’s office. “The term is selected when the entity is created. Many names appear to be simply the result of custom or usage and not necessarily any legal distinction. It’s about like when Memphis State University changed its name to the University of Memphis. I guess … it sounded better.”
Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the overall concept is good and the state’s incentives definitely need an overhaul.
“Prioritizing types of industries to recruit, and building around existing or creating new industry clusters makes a lot of sense,” Ingram said. “Other states have been successful using this strategy … and more university involvement in both community outreach and applied research can only help. An increased emphasis on international development will be necessary as markets become even more global.”
State Sen. Neely C. Carlton (D-Greenville) said legislators recognize that improvements in the infrastructure and in schools are keys to building the economy.
“The governor recommends better coordination of economic development incentives and programs,” she said. “Because the Legislature has considered such proposals before, I believe the Legislature will agree to centralize development efforts and training programs.”
The Legislature will probably not give “development authorities” a blank check, Carlton said. “I will be interested in hearing how much flexibility the authorities are requesting and how the Legislature will be able to oversee their activities,” she said.
State Sen. Tommy Gollott (D-Biloxi), chairman of the economic development, tourism and parks committee and vice chairman of the ports & marine resources committee, and former president pro tempore of the Senate, said he would go into the special session with an open mind. “I’ve talked to the governor about it, and, after we look at it, if it warrants changing, I guess that’s what we’ll do,” Gollott said.
Most economic developers believe strongly that con
solidation and strengthening of job training efforts is need
ed and that some type of local option tax to fund economic development is important — both issues have been brought up in recent legislative sessions but have not passed, Ingram said.
“Additional information will probably alleviate fears that some have,” he said. “This plan is probably not perfect, but certain parts of it are