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State positioning itself for next round of BRAC scrutiny

In 2005, Mississippi`s military bases – along with those in other states – will again undergo the scrutiny of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) committee.

Throughout the state, a growing uneasiness has spurred communities and politicians to discuss what, if anything, can be done to ward off the specter of BRAC. Work has already begun behind the scenes to head off possible inclusion of Mississippi`s military bases on the closure list.

“Gene Taylor is going to introduce, once again, an amendment to the bill to not do BRAC at all for 2005,” said Beaux Gex, district chief of staff for Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who is a member of Congress’ Armed Services Appropriations Committee. “If that does not pass, then every effort will be made, not only by Gene, but by the entire Mississippi delegation to keep all of Mississippi`s bases not just open but to help them grow even more.”

One of the first things newly-elected Gov. Haley Barbour did was to re-establish the Mississippi Military Communities Council, which “will advise Mississippi`s executive and legislative officials about the ongoing efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense that would impact military installations located in Mississippi,” the Governor`s Office said. “Additionally, the Mississippi Military Communities Council will advise state and legislative officials regarding opportunities to enhance, expand or improve missions, programs, facilities, operations on or affecting the military installations in Mississippi.”

In late January, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) released a statement suggesting that when evaluating the need to close bases, the scrutiny should first be focused on overseas bases. “If U.S. military bases are to be closed, jobs lost and lives changed, which communities should feel the heat first – those in an increasingly unsupportive Western Europe, or in patriotic, taxpaying towns in Mississippi? In Western Europe, America still has bases and infrastructure awaiting a Soviet specter that is more than a decade departed.

“To date, we’ve got a perfect record. Mississippi`s bases have remained open through three BRAC rounds during the 1990s, and we don`t plan to start losing in 2005 when another BRAC round is scheduled. However, even if BRAC does move forward as scheduled, Mississippi`s military installations are well positioned to fend off closure. Since the last BRAC round in 1995, Mississippi`s delegation has secured billions for our state`s bases, mostly in three areas: mission diversification, housing upgrades and equipment upgrades – all modernizations which will help shield these installations from closure.”

Still a lot of worry

For all the reassurances, however, the concern is still there.

“What you have now is a period where the BRAC is looming on the horizon in 2005 and the lobbyists who are defending Mississippi communities’ interest in this are talking about it, it`s being talked about in Congress,” said Lee Youngblood, Lott`s press secretary. “In fact, there`s some sort of phony list circulating on the Internet, I understand. It`s got people scared. There is no BRAC base-closure list at this point. All they’ve done is put forth a criteria for what they’re going to look at in determining a list.

“You don`t want to say not to worry. We have worried; we have done our homework. We have not had a base closed and we’ve gone through three BRAC rounds – ’91, ’93 and ’95. So it`s good to be worried and concerned. There`s no reason to go into panic.”

Predictably, rumors abound, reflecting the concerns of each community. Naval Station Pascagoula, as the smallest of Mississippi`s bases, is seen in some quarters as the most vulnerable.

Gex explained that the process doesn`t work that way.

“The committee hasn`t even formed. Obviously, where people think that their base is in trouble, the communities have already formed to help address this issue. And some cities have even hired some Washington advisors to help them in this process. So, no base is really totally safe from being put on the list, but some bases have a greater vulnerability.

“The local support will not be taken into consideration when the list is made up. It will be looked at strictly as a dollar-and-cents type of thing, and what we have that is a redundancy with a base that they might be closing. The local support will weigh heavily in effect when the committee person does come and visit that base.”

Lott is sour on the entire concept of BRAC.

“Sen. Lott has introduced legislation in the past to try to kill BRAC altogether,” Youngblood said. “The process is flawed. They’re taking every base, overseas and here too, throwing them in a big pot that`s called ‘closure,’ and most of those bases are not going to be closed, but that forces all these local communities to spend money – they’re spending taxpayer money on lobbyists or whatever, and they may not even be closed. It creates a hysterical kind of atmosphere and what we’d like to see is the Congress actually do their job and decide what bases should be closed based on recommendations from the Pentagon. The communities involved would have much more of a say in the process.”

Lott`s suggestion is that instead of entire bases, the process focus on programs. “The Pentagon needs to reduce excess infrastructure. Nobody disputes that. However, I’d like to see a congressionally-based process unfold where we work in conjunction with the Pentagon to identify areas of excess military capacity – not necessarily bases, but programs and operations – and, from there, determine what facilities would be considered for closure.”

What`s at stake is considerable.

According to the Governor`s Office, “Mississippi`s military bases directly employ approximately 36,000 people and have an annual payroll of more than $1.2 billion.” Those bases directly affect the communities surrounding them.

For instance, Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi is the site of the second-largest medical center in the Air Force. That attracts many military retirees, in addition to the reported 26,500 military personnel, dependents and civilians who live and work on the base. Columbus Air Force Base trains more than 25% of Air Force pilots and is home for more than 6,200 military, dependents and civilians.

The Navy has three bases in the state. Naval Air Station Meridian trains jet aviators and supports about 4,000 military and civilians. In Pascagoula, six Navy ships and more than 1,800 military, dependents and civilians call the town their homeport. The Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport is one of only two Seabee bases in the U.S. Its presence means approximately 4,000 military assigned and nearly 800 civilian employees to the area.

“If you look at Keesler Air Force Base alone, they contribute a revenue of about $3 billion per year for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. You have also on top of that the other bases, which have a tremendous economic impact on the entire community – much more than the casinos, although the casinos have added to the phenomenal growth and stability that we have here. The military bases are still basically our anchor as far as the economy,” Gex said.

There`s a reason the BRAC rounds are in 2005, Youngblood pointed out.

“The base-closure politics is really not partisan. It turns into a regional thing, to a certain extent. The states with a lot of military presence are the ones that follow it heavily, and you can understand why, and it`s regardless of whether it`s Democrat or Republican or whatever,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Kim Campbell at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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