A number of South Mississippi business leaders felt they had won an important victory even before the vote was held for the recent statewide elections. That’s because statewide candidates, including those for governor and lieutenant governor, from both parties spent a lot of time campaigning in communities across the growing region.
South Mississippi business and legislative leaders have long complained that the area has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to issues like chairmanships of key legislative committees, and support for the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). The leaders have felt the area’s rapid growth and large population should dictate greater clout in Jackson.
A heavy turnout of Republican voters on the Coast helped sweep Haley Barbour and Amy Tuck into the state’s top two offices. Gov.-elect Barbour’s appointment of Hancock Bank CEO George Schloegel of Gulfport to help head the transition team for the new governor was seen as an acknowledgment of the importance of the Coast vote in Barbour’s election.
“The fact the governor appointed George Schloegel here as one of two people heading the transition team is a good sign,” said John McFarland, market services director for The Sun Herald and vice chair of communications for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. “We’re prepared to work with the new governor and lieutenant governor. We have already made contact with both of them. One of the things we have talked about with all of the candidates is that we feel South Mississippi should play an appropriate role. I think both Haley Barbour and Amy Tuck are aware that, in many respects, they won their elections because of the support they got here. I think it is fair to say that both spent more time campaigning here than any past governor and lieutenant governor. I think they recognize the importance of the area.”
Schloegel said that under the Barbour administration all segments of the state are poised for four years of progressive leadership.
“Fairness and balance are Haley’s goals: fairness for consumers, business, environmentalist, professionals — for people from all walks of life,” Schloegel said.
“His goal is a balance between heritage and growth. Is this not what the people of Mississippi have been asking for?”
John M. Walton, president of Whitney National Bank in Mississippi and public affairs chairman for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, said he is optimistic that South Mississippi will get some better representation under the Barbour administration.
“I feel now that they have gotten to know us better, they will remember us when it is important,” Walton said. “It is also a matter of numbers. If you look at the numbers, we are more and more of a factor. You have to have Southern Mississippi now if you really want to win.”
Coast chamber leaders were also very pleased that an amendment regarding the makeup of the state college board passed easily. The chamber was heavily involved in advocating the change so that members of the college board are selected from judicial districts rather than the 1944 congressional districts. Since the population of South Mississippi has grown faster than other areas of the state since 1944, some felt representation on the college board was skewed towards the northern part of the state. The amendment also changed the terms of the college board members from 12 years to nine.
It would be expected that the amendment was favored by newspapers in South Mississippi. But its passage was also advocated in editorials in North Mississippi newspapers. Overall, there was an unusually large victory with the amendment passing by a margin of 85%.
“Actually, I was surprised that it passed by that high a margin,” Walton said. “I thought for sure it was going to be much closer than it was. I’m just ecstatic. We really did believe that the northern part of the state would take the approach that the proposed amendment may be equitable, but was not necessarily in their best interests. We thought there might be opposition. But I did not see evidence of any opposition, which is very encouraging.”
Walton said that it would take a while before the southern part of the state gets more college board members. But it is hoped that more money eventually will come to USM as a result.
Schloegel said the constitutional amendment passing by an overwhelming majority in every county of the state shows that sectionalism is a myth.
“The Hills, Delta, Capital and Coast all make-up one beautiful Mississippi,” Schloegel said. “We are one people regardless of which of the 82 counties is home. This vote was not a surprise to me. I have great faith and belief in the people of Mississippi.”
The amendment was opposed by Roy Klumb of Gulfport, an executive with Klumb Forest Co. who is vice president of the College Board. In an opinion piece submitted to newspapers prior to the election, Klumb said, “There is whining by some in South Mississippi about how they are always left out of the political process and how they want more representation on the College Board in the name of the University of Southern Mississippi and business development for the southern region.”
Klumb argued the College Board members shouldn’t advocate for one university, but instead for the health of the college system as a whole.
“Being from Gulfport, some would say I should represent South Mississippi,” Klumb said. “Being a Mississippi State graduate, some would say I should represent MSU. My mother being a W graduate, some would say I should work to save the W. I am sure you can see the problem. I can assure you that most of my colleagues on the board do. The changing of the 1944 district lines to a more modern map is reasonable, and would allow a governor to more easily select people from around the state and I would support that. But, I reject the notion that a board member should represent a certain view from a particular university perspective or a particular regional perspective. Board members are charged with doing what is best for higher education in Mississippi, while keeping an eye on maintaining an affordable university system for the average Mississippian.”
Klumb also said the reducing the terms of college board members from 12 to nine years could adversely impact long-term planning for the state university system.
Klumb alleged that the constitutional amendment effort was made on behalf of a few power brokers in South Mississippi “who have appointed themselves to watch over you and me in the name of business development of South Mississippi, and simply want to control what goes on at USM.
“Basically, they ultimately want a ninth free-standing university on the Gulf Coast, and they seem perfectly willing to use USM in this process. Moreover, they seem perfectly willing to discard the broader picture, and the ultimate cost to us all, to satisfy their local political desires.
“The defeat of this amendment would be a signal to those that don’t want big money and the power brokers running a university system that is at war with itself. What we need is a university system moving in one direction, focusing on quality and affordability for the people of our state, and one that produces well-rounded thinkers and citizens that will help move the entire state forward.”
After the election, Klumb said the amendment passed because there was a lot of organized support for changing the amendment and no organized support for leaving things the way they were. He said in the minds of many people, it was an issue of fairness.
“My biggest problems with the rhetoric is that we are not supposed to be a representative body,” Klumb said. “We are supposed guide long-range policy and planning. We are supposed to be out of the day-to-day politics of who is getting what and why.”
Klumb acknowledges that Ole Miss and Mississippi State University get more money per student than USM. But he said if you strip out medical school dollars at Ole Miss and extensive funding for agriculture programs at MSU, the funding per university is not that far apart.
“The irony of this from my perspective is USM is the more efficient university,” Klumb said. “It is getting the job done with less dollars, which is a message for the other two. The challenge for everyone is to get the job done efficiently with the least amount of tax money or tuition dollars expended. I am personally concerned with keeping tuition affordable for the people of this state.
“We have to get control of the governmental spending. The university system is just part of it. Their growth in spending over the last five years has still been pacing two to three times the rate of inflation. We have to get the growth and spending on university campuses back in line with inflation. If we don’t, it will result in higher taxes and tuition for all of us.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.