JACKSON — A proposed state department of labor is on the drawing board once again.
And once again, the prospects of seeing legislation passed to create it are dim.
“It doesn’t have much support at all, especially with a budget shortfall,” said Sen. Jack Gordon (D-Okolona), chairman of the appropriations committee. “It would cost several million dollars to set up and it doesn’t have overwhelming support. There’s certainly no money for it.”
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who has been pushing for the creation of a state labor department since he was elected, said his primary concern was “for the state to capitalize on workforce training dollars for Mississippians.”
“My goal has always been to secure the maximum amount of federal funding that goes through the federal department of labor,” he said. “Mississippi has all of the aspects of a department of labor scattered through about eight agencies. My objective has always been to pull those together without increasing bureaucracy so we could capture more available federal funds for training in the workforce. That has not happened, so we have been vigilant on trying to secure every available dollar we could for training in Mississippi.”
Proponents of the bill say Mississippi is the only state without a labor department and that the consolidation of numerous functions from other areas of state government under a single agency would be cost-efficient and could result in increased federal funding for workforce training dollars.
Ricky Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said supporting a state labor department is a “no-brainer.”
“It’s my understanding that we’re losing money from the federal government because we don’t have a department of labor,” he said. “It has some opposition from the business community but the Legislature can create a department that will be business friendly and worker friendly. This is something that our friends and allies in the labor movement feel very strongly about. The state Democratic executive committee passed its endorsement of the creation of a labor department without debate or a dissenting vote. The governor and the lieutenant governor both ran on the need to create one. We don’t feel it’s that controversial an issue once you get past some of the details.”
Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi chapter of the AFL-CIO, insisted “there are federal dollars waiting to be used, but you have to show a need for it.”
“John Doe doesn’t know there’s training available at the community colleges so we can’t represent a need to the federal government,” he said. “If an employer wants to come to the state we’ve got to provide a trained workforce and if we can’t, they’re not coming. If we can provide training and show that we have these places around the state available, then we can react and have a better society down here.”
By consolidating functions, Shaffer said potential companies could have access to labor force statistics from one state agency.
“The agencies serving the state do a good job, but one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing,” he said.
Shaffer insisted that the push for the state labor department wasn’t a “pro-organized workers agenda, but a worker’s agenda.”
“As far as labor contracts, I don’t see a big advantage for us other than if we had a chance to attract a plant that might become unionized through the education process or retraining and we would get a shot at them becoming a union, but most of all I just want to see people working. People ought to get past the labor issue because the labor unions certainly haven’t gone away because of the lack of a labor department and I don’t think they’ll show major increases if we had one tomorrow.”
Jim Herring, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, said he believes the governor “thinks he needs (a state labor department) because his Democrat constituents tell him he needs one. We are opposed to it and don’t see a need for more bureaucracy in Mississippi. We have enough as it is. We’re a right-to-work state and we have state agencies that are very sensitive and supportive of the needs of our citizens in workers’ comp and on the job injury issues, and workforce training.”
John Baas, director of industrial relations for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said the organization opposes it “because we don’t think we need another state agency formed at a time when we can’t pay for state government now as we have it. They want to form a whole additional layer of regulation and government. Every year, they say that we’re the only state that doesn’t have a labor department, but that’s just not true.”
MEC president Blake Wilson called the proposal for a labor department “as regular as the Swallows of Capistrano.”
“I don’t think it’s a real serious matter and we continue to be opposed to it,” Wilson said. “It’s layer upon layer of bureaucracy. It’s an area that other progressive states have moved away from. They are dismantling this bureaucracy in other parts of the country, not trying to put it back together.”
Wilson said workforce training doesn’t even belong in a department of labor.
“Progressive states like Michigan, Texas and Florida have moved it away from labor,” he said. “It’s an education and economic development issue. Providing a trained workforce is not a labor issue. Labor is an enforcement and you can’t ask enforcers to suddenly become opportunists. It takes a different mindset. We have enforcement areas in workers’ comp and unemployment, and the federal department of labor oversees most everything else.”
Exactly what funds are we not getting?
When the Mississippi Business Journal called congressmen and federal agencies that administer workforce training funds to find out how much money Mississippi is losing because it does not have a state labor department, the answer was none.
“Because of the strength of the Mississippi congressional delegation, we are frequently getting complaints from others around the country that an unfair amount of federal dollars for workforce training and development is being made available to the state,” said Lee Youngblood, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss).
In a memo, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss) wrote: “I am not aware of any statutory or regulatory requirement that states have a department of labor in order to receive funds. I have also consulted with DOL’s Office of the Solicitor on this issue, and they inform me that to the best of their knowledge, funding to states has nothing to do with whatever name a state agency has. In general, states have to meet a variety of requirements to receive funds, but the actual name of the agency is not a factor.”
When Emily S. DeRocco, assistant secretary of employment and training administration for the U.S. Department of Labor responsible for managing a $10.5-billion budget that funds the country’s public workforce investment system, was executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. She wrote a letter last January discussing federally funded employment and training programs.
“(They) are generally grounded in federal statutes which include formulas for the distribution of appropriated funds,” she wrote. “These formulas often include such factors as size of the civilian labor force, number of unemployed workers and other population demographics. I am unaware of any federally appropriated workforce program/service dollars that are allocated to the states in relation to the organization
he state government, i.e., the number, size or configuration of state agencies involved in the program administration/service delivery.”
Martin Bishop, special assistant to DeRocco, said nothing about the state government organization affects the amount of money that is funneled to the states for any of the workforce funds and that the structure of services with