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Tort reform, education, workforce training priorities

Businesses making 2002 legislative wish lists

JACKSON — With another slow year of state collections, Scrooge’s frugal hand may have the last say on legislative agendas.

Many business and industry state associations and agencies have targeted non-monetary issues, pushing tort reform to the forefront as Mississippi readies for the 2002 legislative session, which begins in January.

Mississippi Manufacturers Association

Because numerous national publications, such as The New York Times, have called Mississippi a “lawsuit Mecca” for hefty jury awards in certain counties, fostering a reputation that discourages economic development prospects, insurance companies, medical professionals and business people, MMA’s 2002 legislative agenda is focused on restoring balance to the state’s court system and maintaining a competitive business climate, said Jerry McBride, MMA president.

“MMA will push for legislation to restore some balance to Mississippi’s legal system by curbing this influx of cases,” McBride said. “There needs to be a sensible relationship between the damage a defendant caused and the punitive damages he pays.”

Because a recent court decision has the potential to destroy the exclusive remedy of the workers’ compensation system by allowing lawsuits instead of administrative procedures of the commission in bad faith claims, MMA will push legislation that would protect employers’ and insurance company’s defense in bad faith cases.

“MMA will push several other bills to require fair interpretation of the workers’ compensation law, to allow employer access to necessary medical records, and to require notice of injury prior to termination of an employee,” McBride said.

In addition, MMA will oppose burdensome environmental permit fees for manufacturers to keep Mississippi manufacturers’ costs from making them uncompetitive, McBride said.

“Two tax proposals MMA has pushed for several years would bring Mississippi more in line with its sister states,” he said. “We are one of the few states still basing its income tax heavily on the plant and payroll that a multi-state corporation has invested in Mississippi. Most other states now base their corporate income tax on the companies’ sales in the state.”

Another tax proposal concerns the 1998 legislation creating the brownfields program to encourage cleanup of slightly contaminated sites. The law anticipated development of tax incentives, like those in other states, to encourage more cleanups of brownfield sites, McBride said.

“We’re also opposing mandates on health insurance coverage because any time you have a mandate, the cost is increased,” he said. “Our members have mentioned the cost of health insurance as a major problem and they oppose being forced to increase their coverage.”

Mississippi Bankers Association

Civil justice reform, or tort reform, is on the front burner for Mississippi bankers, said Mac Deaver, MBA executive director.

“We’re moving that up on our agenda and have joined the newly organized group, Mississippians for Economic Progress,” Deaver said. “They’ll work on several fronts for tort reform and judicial election reform and will be involved in legislative elections. We’re seeing tort abuse affecting economic development by seeing out of state lawyers coming here using large groups of plaintiffs, some of whom have no connection to our state, and using the court system, which is costing the taxpayers and businesses of the state a lot of money.”

Other banking issues, like predatory lending and financial modernization, aren’t generally coming up at the state level, Deaver said.

“As an industry here in the state, we’re dealing with our customers in a responsible manner and are in line with regulators, who deal with any problems that come up,” he said. “We’re not mounting any big push on these issues or are aware of any big initiatives coming, but we are open to working with the leadership to solve any problems.”

Associated General Contractors of Mississippi

Tort reform and workers’ compensation legislation top the legislative agenda for the AGC, said executive director Perry Nations.

“Tort reform will be our No. 1 issue,” Nations said. “We’ll work with the Mississippians for Economic Progress on the tort reform, and there are about seven bills being put in a final form now on that issue.”

AGC will collaborate with MASE (Mississippi Association of Self-Insured) on a workers’ compensation bad faith bill, Nations said.

“We want to see something that will benefit the self-insured groups in the state,” he said. “There have been some recent court cases of ‘bad faith’ in workers’ compensation. workers’ compensation is supposed to be the sole remedy but there have been some pretty large awards in individual court cases.”

Bad faith charges have never been a problem before in the workers’ compensation arena, but it’s becoming one now, Nations said.

“For the self-insured groups and individual self-insureds that stepped in about 10 years ago and pulled the workers’ compensation market out of the ditch when the insurance companies left, we want to see bad faith claims handled by the workers’ compensation commission and let them set the compensation,” he said. “The commission should decide the magnitude of the violation and determine what the just compensation should be.”

Mississippi Economic Council

Education, workforce, infrastructure and tort reform are priority issues for the Mississippi Economic Council, said Blake Wilson, MEC president.

“The No. 1 issue in consistent polling around the business community outside our membership has been education and workforce training,” Wilson said. “We need to make sure we are dealing effectively with workforce issues. There’s an opportunity to move forward on some community college initiatives, particularly related to positioning community colleges to better serve the communities they represent by changing the funding formula approach from a degree based point of view to a full time equivalency. It would really help Mississippi compete more effectively.”

Wilson said legislation isn’t required to take advantage of the opportunity, but Mississippians need to make sure that the accountability program doesn’t get derailed.

“We have a unique opportunity to move forward with the accountability-testing program, which is already in the implementation stage and rates schools on an individual basis,” he said. “It’s critical to keep this moving because it’s more than rating schools. It is a way to improve performance as well.”

Even though bringing fairness and equity to the legal system and the jurisdiction problem need to be addressed by legislators, education remains the top priority. Other legislative issues concern infrastructure needs, including water systems and new highway funding, Wilson said.

The Mississippi Bar

Salary increases for district attorneys and trial court judges — to bring them in line with neighboring states — is a key legislative agenda item for Mississippi lawyers, said Jimmie Reynolds III, director of government relations for The Mississippi Bar.

“Surrounding states pay district attorneys an average of $101,227 and assistant district attorneys an average of $84,943,” he said. “In Mississippi, the average pay is $79,830 and $67,500, respectively, for D.A. and assistant D.A.s. There’s a high turnover, especially for assistant D.A.s, and we want to see them better paid to allow for better continuity of cases.”

Contiguous states pay their trial judges an average of $13,000 more than Miss
issi
ppi pays its trial judges, Reynolds said.

“We pay trial court judges an average of $94,700,” he said. “Just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen some of Mississippi’s trial court judges quit and go to private practice.”

The Mississippi Bar would also like to see the judicial branch funded and treated equally with the other two b

About Lynne W. Jeter

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