Jackson — In an ironic twist of fate, WorldCom bailed out Mississippi legislators.
Using money from the $100-million settlement with MCI, the former Clinton-based WorldCom, state lawmakers retired a $35-million debt for the Oakland beef processing plant fiasco dubbed “Cattle-gate,” which Gov. Haley Barbour called “a bad attempt at economic development.”
The balance of the settlement money was used to help shore up the $4.6 billion budget that lawmakers approved during the second special session.
A quick recap
Lawmakers fell short of fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula, which determines the amount of funds the state contributes for each child. That formula, established by a law passed in 1977, calculates the state’s portion at $3,754 per student.
The $1.9-billion compromise bill for education funding fell short $87.7 million of the MAEP formula, but gave schools $132.3 million more than was allocated for this fiscal year.
Momentum tops June 28th agenda
During the special session, lawmakers also passed a smattering of bills, approving legislation to fund the increase in the state employee health insurance plan, extend the telemarketing no-call list for another year, and create a burn center fund in the Department of Health budget to replace a similar state firefighters’ fund. They also passed laws benefiting vulnerable adults, families of the military serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and providing $10 million to the cancer center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
On the day Barbour unloaded the beef processing boondoggle, he called a third special session to start June 28 to consider Momentum Mississippi, a plan for economic development incentives that would provide loans and grants to attract companies and expand existing facilities that are currently ineligible, such as high-tech firms. He said he would consider letting lawmakers add other bond projects if they would pass the legislation. During the second special session, House members added $98 million to fund pet projects.
“It’s not true, this depiction that the House is trying to tear down Momentum Mississippi,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi), who pointed out that the basic idea behind Momentum Mississippi began in November 2002 when he chaired the Ways and Means Committee. “We would’ve passed it in the regular session. Immediately after it passed out of Ways and Means, the governor’s people started talking about amending it and putting a whole lot more money in it, so it fell by the wayside. We passed it in the special session, and sure, there were some things we were interested in. At least we could’ve gone to conference, but they didn’t want to do that.”
McCoy said House leaders were disappointed when “the governor sent out a letter to boards of supervisors, telling them not to ask their representatives to put in a project, to come through his office instead and deals should be scrutinized there.
“We don’t like the idea of delegating all constitutional authority to the executive branch,” he said. “It’s an absolute must that representatives and senators have a strong say in what happens in their communities. We want to have a voice, without it being ridiculed.”
Gubernatorial spokesperson Pete Smith said, “Ever since Momentum Mississippi died in the regular session, the governor has made plain that he is willing to expand the call to include projects that both the House and Senate have agreed upon for consideration — once legislation is passed. I don’t know what else he can do. Everyone across the state realizes that we need Momentum Mississippi to stay competitive. And the governor is intent on getting Momentum Mississippi legislation passed.”
Northrop Grumman has expressed disappointment in the lack of legislative support for the program, which would help the shipbuilder expand its Pascagoula-based operation. Baxter Healthcare has threatened to move operations elsewhere if a decision is not made soon.
‘Clear support’ for Momentum
“There is clear support for the Momentum package standing on its own merits as a clean bill,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. “The incentive legislation is the result of careful research through the Blueprint Mississippi effort (and) had the input at the front end of 1,000 business and community leaders who participated in the Blueprint process. The Blueprint recommendations contained in the Momentum Mississippi incentive package initiatives were supported by the overwhelming majority 1,000 business and community leaders who actually voted on the Blueprint recommendations in MEC Caucus meetings held over the last year in 22 different communities around the state. You can’t get much better buy-in than this.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.