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Coast's political clout grows as economic activity booms

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST – Like the rest of the state, this time of year the Coast has its sights on Jackson and what`s happening in the 2004 legislative session. Coast business and political leaders share many of the same concerns that residents all over the state have with economic and educational issues.

There are, however, some distinctions that set the three southernmost counties apart. State Sen. Tommy Moffatt, a Republican from Jackson County, said there is more interest in the environment on the Coast, concerns over the loss of valuable wetlands and problems with wastewater systems due to much of the area`s high water table that the rest of the state doesn`t have.

“We have higher salaries, plenty of jobs and a higher ad valorem tax base,” he said. “Coast people are realizing that we must get involved in state government. We’re sending a lot of money to Jackson for other people to decide how it`s spent.”

While coastal residents have felt overlooked by the state in the past, Moffatt and others say they’re beginning to see a shift of power as the Coast grows in population and economic development.

“The lieutenant governor recognized that Coast counties helped elect her and made committee appointments that we’ve never had before,” Moffatt said. “We’ve always had the chairmanship of ports and marine resources, but now we also have chairmanships of finance, highways and transportation, environmental protection and public utilities all from Hattiesburg south.”

A businessman on the Coast for 40 years, Gene Warr of Gulfport says the people of South Mississippi are more together than they’ve ever been and that political leaders and those running for office are showing more respect for the area.

“You can almost call Hattiesburg part of the Coast now because we have a branch of the University of Southern Mississippi down here and we have other shared interests,” he said. “Our needs and thinking are a lot alike.”

Warr, a former president of the Coast Chamber of Commerce and active in many community organizations, says Coast business and political leaders are now quite unified on all issues but are nonetheless attuned to statewide issues.

“The business community is more active than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.”The state is working hard to be fair to us down here. We’re the stage of Mississippi and the lights are on the stage.”

The election of Rep. J.P. Compretta of Bay St. Louis as Speaker Pro Tem of the House of Representatives was a milestone for him and the Coast.

“I am pleased for myself and for the Coast,” he said. “My election and the key committee chairmanships assigned to members of the coastal delegation definitely show a change of attitudes.”

Compretta, a Democrat in his seventh term in the Legislature, says the creation of new House committees – tourism, gaming and marine resources – is important to the concerns of the Coast.

Another indicator of the Coast`s growing political clout is the appointment of members from the Coast to chairmanships of key committees in the House that include ports and harbors, tourism, insurance, banks, education and marine resources. Vice chairmanships include transportation, appropriations, conservation and Medicaid.

Compretta points out that transportation continues to be a huge concern to coastal residents due to the area`s growth in population.

“I was transportation committee chairman for eight years, and I’m aware of why it takes so long to build highways,” he said. “One hot project now is the extension of Canal Road to the State Port. It`s moving along in the process.”

He says one of the biggest changes he`s seen during his time in the Legislature is the unity of the coastal delegation. “We’re still Democrats and Republicans but we’re together on most issues,” he said.

Ernest Burdette of Pass Christian feels the Gulf Coast is a leader in the state with very different challenges regarding economic development and what`s appropriate for the environment. Recognition by state government is key to that concern, he says. He is one of the founders of Triton Systems, manufacturers of automated teller machines, which employs 300 people at its Long Beach plant.

“I have felt with previous administrations and the Legislature that the Coast`s role in the state economy has not been appreciated and recognized,” he said. “I’m encouraged at this point by the attention we’re getting from the governor, the Legislature and the development authority.”

Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi, now in his third term, is confident Gov. Haley Barbour will follow through on his promises to make sure South Mississippi gets the attention it deserves.

“People need to realize that we have an awesome challenge here in Biloxi and on the Gulf Coast, and we need state and federal assistance to help meet the major responsibilities, like transportation,” he said.

“What happens here has a tremendous impact on the rest of the state.”

Holloway notes that while Biloxi`s economy has “taken off” during the past decade, it`s important to keep things in perspective. With development and growth in population come strain of all infrastructure and increased demands for services.

“We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars catching up on neglected streets and drainage work, and we embarked on efforts to improve our school system, upgrade public safety and build new recreational facilities,” he said. “We had to catch up and be in a position to meet the growing responsibilities that we’ve had to undertake as part of this growing economy.”

A vital issue Holloway is following is legislative action to dissolve the Biloxi Port Commission, turning over day-to-day control of the public marinas, harbors and piers to the city.

“We’ve essentially been managing the Port Commission for the past several months after an agreement was passed by them and the City Council,” he said, “but since the Commission was created by the Legislature, we need legislative action to dissolve it.”

Publisher Emeritus of the Sea Coast Echo in Bay St. Louis and a member of the Mississippi Press Association`s Hall of Fame Ellis Cuevas said,

“There has always been a division, I think, between the Gulf Coast area and the rest of the state. Prior to gaming, the Coast was more interested in tourism concentration than the rest of the state.”

Cuevas, who holds many leadership positions in Hancock County, voiced an opinion shared by others interviewed for this story regarding what the coastal counties receive from the state in return for taxes sent to the capital city.

“We’ve been carrying the tax burden for many years and left out. I’m hoping that will change,” he said. “We’re seeing more attention from the governor and others in state government.”

Gulfport Mayor Ken Combs said of his city, “We’re getting attention from Tax Collector Ed Buelow to the tune of $86 million a year and only getting $17.2 million back. That`s all.”

In his 13th year as mayor of Mississippi`s second-largest city, Combs is working diligently to insure passage of the Mississippi Optional Sales Tax (MOST) bill this year. The bill allows cities the option of increasing sales taxes for improvements to infrastructure. In Gulfport, a city that has grown in population and annexation from 41,000 in 1990 to 80,000 now, has crucial needs for the purchase of two major water systems and repairs to the existing system, Combs stated in a letter to all members of the Legislature.

Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi also supports this legislation although his city, home to nine casinos, has no pressing need for additional taxation at this time. “I hope the Legislature acts on this because it`s vitally important for Gulfport and some of our smaller cities to have this tool to help make things happen,” he said.

Warr waded in on the topic of MOST too. “Most of the business people think the Legislature should respect voters’ opinions to consider MOST,” he said. “I’m a fiscal conservative and anti- tax but for this one, if the people are willing to charge themselves sales tax, they should have that option.”

Also of importance to Warr is legislation enabli
the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center to raise the lodging tax in Harrison County to fund additional space and refurbishing for the facility, a $72 million proposal.

At this time the room tax in Harrison County is 10% and the national average is 13%, according to convention center executive director Bill Holmes. The Harrison County Board of Supervisors must pass a resolution requesting the taxation increase and send it to the Legislature. That`s something Holmes hopes happens this year.

Lifelong Biloxian Bobby Mahoney, a member of the Coliseum Commission, will be following this issue too and wants to see it happen.

Manager of the popular Mary Mahoney`s Old French House Restaurant, Mahoney is a proponent of gaming and has seen his business triple since gaming came to the Coast. It would be a big concern to him if the Legislature tries to raise gaming taxes. He feels that gaming, because of the economic advantages, must be allowed to prosper.

With casinos currently taxed at 12% and contributing a hefty share of the state`s general fund, Compretta does not think the gaming tax has a chance of being raised this year.

“The speaker of the House has made it clear that he`s against it,” he said. “Others in the gaming industry who are thinking of locating here are watching. A tax increase could determine whether or not they come to Mississippi.”

Along the lines of tax incentives, Mahoney said, “Nissan is a good thing and I’m all for it, but one casino employee is the economic equivalent to 40 Nissan workers. That`s because Nissan will receive a half-billion dollars from the state and in what they won`t pay out in property taxes over the next 10 years and one of our casinos, Beau Rivage, will give the state a half billion dollars in the next 10 years.”

Sandra Gibson of Pascagoula agrees that casinos are important to the economic health of the Coast and is also concerned that plant closings in Jackson County could make the county vulnerable for economic catastrophe.

“This affects the whole state,” she said. “I think businesses are an important mouthpiece for politics. If we sit back and say nothing, nothing is going to happen.”

Gibson, business manager of Gibson Electric, an industrial electric motor repair facility, was founder of the Jackson County Industrial Trade Show and chaired the event for nine years. She is following tort reform and other issues of economic development.

As in recent years, there is interest in seeing the Legislature pass a bill allowing state universities to teach gaming management classes. Tulane University of New Orleans now has a branch in Biloxi and is teaching these courses. Compretta sees no hope for Mississippi schools to follow suit soon.

“The House passes it every year but it doesn`t make it out of the Senate and the leadership there hasn`t changed,” he said. “It`s ridiculous that our people can not have this.”

A bill designed to move the oversight of any oil and gas drilling in the Mississippi Sound from the Department of Environmental Quality to the Development Authority is being followed by some Coast residents.

Moffatt thinks the bill will pass and that promoting and selling petroleum leases will be better off in a state department with development expertise. Others, however, expressed dismay. Mahoney said he will carefully follow the issue and Ernest Burdette said he thinks drilling in the Sound would be counter productive for the Gulf Coast.

Members of the Coastal legislative delegation and the community are working to make NASA`s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County the location for all of the space agency`s administrative and human resource services. Presently, these services are scattered around the country, and this would be NASA`s first national consolidation.

According to Compretta, having this NASA facility would mean 500 new jobs, all in the $60,000 salary range. Mississippi, along with other states that have NASA installations, is bidding for this center. The state will commit $20 million to build a facility for NASA.

“The governor and members of the Legislature will be on hand on March 15 when NASA director Sean O’Keefe comes to tour Stennis Space Center,” he said. “We’re excited and encouraged and the state and counties are working together on this.”

Moffatt is trying to get appropriations for undergraduate courses in hydrology, engineering and marine sciences at Stennis Space Center to support educational efforts there. The classes would be administered by USM.

In Pascagoula, Northrop Grumman recently broke ground on a $35-million expansion project, the first phase of a total $224 million in expansion and modernization planned as part of its public/private partnership with the state.

The project is intended to give the shipbuilding company the nation`s most modern and safe work environment and to keep it on the leading edge of competition. Completion is scheduled for December of this year, in time for the first Coast Guard cutter keel-laying ceremony, according to William Glenn of the public affairs department.

The partnership between the State of Mississippi and Northrop Grumman combines private funding from the company with funds from the state through a series of bond issuances. The first bond issuance of $48 million was signed into law in April 2003. Future bond issuances are pending in the Legislature, monitored by the company and the coastal delegation.

“The investment made by the state and the company will keep this shipyard in Pascagoula vibrant, competitive and productive well into the 21st Century,” said Dr. Philip A. Dur, Ship Systems president. “We are also adding opportunity in this investment. During the construction phase alone, there will be about 150 new jobs created and about $12 million in tax revenues generated for Mississippi.”

He added that once these programs ramp up. The state will benefit from about $282 million in tax revenues and even more jobs will be added to support the workload. Northrop Grumman currently employs 12,000 people in Mississippi.

“We appreciate the support and cooperation we’ve had in getting this legislation passed,” Glenn said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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