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Candidates pass the economic development ball

Hut-hut! Political football time once again

Even though politicians have long been known for equivocating federal funds earmarked for economic development with political favors, the stakes are higher during Election 2003, and all eyes are following the money.

The economy has been stagnant, and state government is mired in deficit and debt issues. Even though Nissan’s $1.3-billion investment gave the Mississippi a much-needed monetary boost, many opportunities were missed, and numerous manufacturers closed their doors, making economic development one of the hottest topics in election year buzz.

“It’s a good thing that economic development is a higher priority with candidates, particularly with them paying more attention to the development of homegrown business and industry and native talent,” said Gary Matthews, executive director of the Attala Industrial Development Corporation in Kosciusko. “That bodes well for the future of the state.”

Economic development is definitely a driving force in this election, said Robert Ingram, executive director of Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation.

“Everybody obviously wants the economy improved, and more and better and higher-paying jobs,” he said. “Every governor will do what he can to create a strong environment with jobs because it’s a smart political move. A sitting governor obviously has great power and control of MDA, with grant monies and such. And I’m sure Musgrove will take every advantage of that, as have previous governors. It’s not a Musgrove thing. It’s always gone on and always will.”

Robert Albritton, Ph.D., political science professor at the University of Mississippi, said economic development issues wouldn’t decide this election.

“The sense of feel of the candidates will determine this election,” he said. “Two years ago, the feeling about the governor was largely related to the fact that we had a disastrous fiscal situation in the state. We’re pulling out of it, but there’s typically a six-month lag in perception. Whether or not we’ll see an improvement take hold — of Musgrove’s evaluations by people who were very negative just a year or so ago — by the time of the election is the key to Musgrove being able to turn it around.”

Disgruntled citizens don’t necessarily vote for a gubernatorial candidate, but against one, said Albritton.

“That gives the non-incumbent an advantage,” he said. “In a very generalized way, disgruntlement is not a good thing for incumbents.”

Merit or shrewd politics at play?

There has been speculation that Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has used his power to disburse federal funds, like Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), to curry political favor.

“If so, that’s absolutely standard fare,” said Albritton. “That’s just how politics works. I moved from Illinois, and it’s a lot worse up there. They required state employees to donate to the party in power to get or keep a government job.”

Charles Gulotta, president of The Alliance in Corinth, insisted that CDBG projects are allocated based solely on merit.

“We don’t deal in political favors,” he said. “We’ve been very, very successful. Everyone’s stood up to a very close scrutiny. If that’s the case in other parts of the country, I don’t know about it.”

The potential exists for abusing the allocation of funds, said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Warren County Port Commission and former executive director of Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) during the Fordice administration.

“I can’t speak for them today, but when I was there, it was based on need, not politics,” he said.

I-20: Mississippi’s Mason-Dixon Line

During the Musgrove administration, economic developers north of I-20 have had little to gripe about, especially since the state is top-heavy with political appointees, and Musgrove is from Batesville. But economic developers who dwell south of the I-20 line have been disgruntled lately, saying the current administration has steered lucrative economic development projects and potential developments away from the area.

“The state is becoming extremely bottom-heavy…south of I-20,” said Albritton. “That’s where the votes are, and I’d try to make those folks happy.”

Joe Parker, Ph.D., political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said South Mississippians believe they are often overlooked for projects and monies that would facilitate growth.

“People south of I-20 sort of have a paranoia, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you haven’t got real enemies,” he said. “If it plays out, for example, that the current governor is steering second and third tier Nissan suppliers north of I-20, that would be dumb politically because there are more votes south of I-20 than north of I-20. And given the paranoia that already exists, this would magnify it.”

Pockets of prosperity

The state economy as a whole may be weakened, but it remains robust on the Gulf Coast because of the influx of tourism dollars driven by casinos, said Reed Guice, president and CEO of Guice Marketing and Consulting in Biloxi.

“According to polls along the Gulf Coast, we’re seeing a great deal of satisfaction in the status quo,” he said. “That bodes well for incumbents.”

Others say the net loss of manufacturing jobs is causing dissension among laid-off workers.

“Mississippi’s lost a higher percentage of manufacturing jobs than any other state in the country,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour of Yazoo City. “We’ve lost 46,000 manufacturing jobs since January 2000, which is more than 20% of all our manufacturing jobs. With that sort of job loss, you can see why people are anxious for change.”

Will the economic development issues resonate with voters? Not necessarily, said Albritton.

“Unless people are feeling better about their economic situation, and perceive economic development activities as having a significant impact, that’s not the kind of issue that will resonate with them,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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