Long-range economic development planning would seem to make perfect sense. Recently the Legislature announced a new effort to develop a 20-year economic development plan designed to link the resources of state universities and communities colleges to economic development.
The problem is, the state already has a long-range economic development plan that was adopted in 1987. But there has been little follow-through seeing that actions are taken to make the plan more than an exercise in paperwork.
Current Mississippi State Code says, “The Legislature finds that the prospective well-being of the people of the State of Mississippi requires that the economic development of the state should be strategically, comprehensively and exhaustively planned and that the plan be reviewed and continuously updated and systematically implemented. …The Legislature hereby declares that the public policy of this state requires an overall, comprehensive and coordinated plan for maximum and accelerated economic development of the state. It is the express intent of the Legislature that such plan be developed and maintained with annual revisions as required.”
That legislation created a special task force for economic development planning made up of 23 members including representatives from the state universities, community colleges, heads of a number of state agencies and representatives from business and professional groups.
But the task force hasn’t met in years. The task force hasn’t revised the plan annually, and little is being done to implement it.
“We have procedures and a process in place for long-range economic development planning and implementation, yet there is no commitment from the political nor private sector leadership to embrace the process,” says Pete Walley, director of long-range economic planning for Mississippi. “The Mississippi Technology Alliance was formed specifically for the purpose of linking university research to technology-based economic development, yet there is very little commitment to the Alliance’s work.”
Walley, whose position was created by the 1987 legislation aimed at long-range economic development planning, said he is struck by how little attention is paid to the mechanisms already in place for planning. As he searches through the existing Mississippi Code, he sees a lot of things on the books that no one enforces or seems to pay much attention to.
“I have to ask in the rhetorical sense, ‘Who even knows we have a long-range planning effort?’” Walley asks. “As a bureaucrat, all I can do is support the power structure. The State Code requires that there be a vice president of research and economic development at each university. Yet we have only one university with a vice president for research and economic development, the University of Southern Mississippi. Not a single other university has looked at that statute and complied. You have to ask why. Does the law not mean anything? What I sense is that it is like apple pie and motherhood. Who is against having a vice president for research and economic development? On the other side of it, who is going to say, ‘We are going to do that’?”
“The law says ‘We really want you to couple university capacity to economic development.’ If we had done this when the law was passed in 1987, we would have 15 years worth of wrestling with the concept of implementing university-coupled economic development.”
Walley said if you ask what universities are doing about economic development, “you will get covered up with reports.” But he feels what is being lost is the interactions between the universities, state agencies and business and industry groups.
“This is not about a planned economy or a centralized planning process in the sense of trying to control the private sector,” Walley said. “I see it as the exact opposite: trying to support private sector in whatever our best opportunities are. That is a conscious thought process. Here are the best opportunities. Now bring the private sector resources to the table. The states that are moving the farthest along have learned how to do that better than we have so far. They have acknowledged there is a relationship between where the private sector can move the economy and where public sector resources can help.
“In my humble opinion, I don’t think we recognize that in this state. If the system does not really want to have long-range economic development planning, then quit wasting the money we are spending on it right now. The reality is that there is a law on the books, we have people here employed doing it, but nothing is happening out of it. The proof of that is ask the administration, ‘Where is this long-range economic development task force? Why hasn’t it met during this administration’s time period?’”
Walley does what is required by state law, and files an updated long-range economic development plan each year. But he doesn’t think that fulfills the spirit of the law by having all these different private, government and academic representatives meeting regularly to come up with the best thinking about how to move the state forward economically.
Walley said the closest the law came to being carried out was in the second Fordice administration. “We made some modest attempts at trying to carry out that law,” he said. “When Gov. Fordice let Jimmy Heidel be chairman of the task force, what he did is say, ‘Let’s take these goals and break them down into some action items we can begin to implement.’”
Walley believes the general goals from the plan in 1987 are just as relevant today as they were 15 years ago. But not much has been accomplished.
“There are many things we could do to try to implement some actions that would lead to fulfilling those goals,” Walley said. “Someone actually has to take this and begin to move on it and implement the long-range plan. There is currently a lack of commitment to a long-range plan.”
Dr. Tom Kynerd, a former employee of the Legislative Budget Committee, said the idea of developing the plan in 1987 was that it would ultimately make decisions about state government financing easier if the economy of the state were revved up.
“That was the interest in having a statewide economic development plan,” Kynerd said. “It was felt in the late 1980s there did not exist a statewide comprehensive economic development plan. The basic purpose and idea is to try to maximize utilization of limited resources to get the most bang for the buck. I’m not sure the state has realized the total benefit of those efforts. Some good things have been done. An outstanding staff is in place. But it is possible the state could get more benefit from the process.”
One of the underpinnings of any plan is coordination to maximize what resources the state has.
“With the great needs that Mississippi has, if you can improve your coordination, it doesn’t cost you anything and you have a possible significant return,” Kynerd said. “The state’s budget exceeds $10 billion. Play with the numbers. If you have an economic development plan that improves efficiency by one percent, that is $100 million in savings. Common sense is that if you operate with a plan with common goals everyone is working towards, you are going to be more efficient and more effective.”
Part of the problem may be that the needs of the state are so great. Kynerd said perhaps often government leaders are so busy “putting out fires” that there isn’t enough time, energy and resources left over for strategic thinking and planning for the future.
There has apparently been a gap between what that state has idealized for long- range economic development planning and what has been realized. Now th
new effort at a 20-year economic development plan has been launched by the Legislature, will things be any different?
The effort is being spearheaded by Rep. Billy McCoy, chairman of the