Jackson — Some people count sheep before falling asleep. Mississippi lobbyist Donna Mabus counts bill numbers.
“House Bill one, two, three,” joked Mabus. “It’s all-consuming this time of year.”
During any given legislative session, about 3,000 bills are introduced. Deduct the appropriation bills, and maybe one-fifth of those bills are passed.
“This year started out with a flurry of activity,” said Mabus. “There wasn’t a lull at the beginning. We hit the ground running this time and I’ve never seen that before. It was fast and furious. And amazing.”
Political pundits have watched the action with interest.
“There was a lot of speculation about whether House Speaker Billy McCoy would be able to handle the job, but he’s proven otherwise this session and has become a fairly formidable negotiator for the government,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “It seems like the governor’s taking him quite seriously.”
Controversy continues to swirl around demands for revenue, said lobbyist Hayes Dent, “especially now that there’s more of it.” Earlier this month, the state tax commission reported that state revenue collections are almost $200 million above projections, thanks to post-hurricane related spending and booming growth in DeSoto County.
Angela Cain, CEO of the Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR), the state’s largest business trade association representing 5,800 members, said the MAR is pleased with its legislative agenda to date.
“We continue to monitor eminent domain bills and any (legislation) where impact fees could pop up,” she said. “Our Home Inspector Regulatory Board bill passed setting terms of office for that board consistent with terms for other regulatory boards such as the Appraisal Board.”
Ron Aldridge, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), said eminent domain abuse protection legislation is still alive and needed.
“HB 100 and HCR 10 are, respectively, the bill and constitutional amendment now in conference, whose intent is to address possible problems encountered with state laws on eminent domain as a result of the Kelo v. New London decision of the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “The House and Senate are split on this issue, with the House taking a much stronger stand in favor of the property owner’s rights and the Senate leaving an open door for economic development. The business community also appears divided, with NFIB taking the hard line stand for the property owner and the House position, while the Mississippi Manufacturers Association favors the Senate version.”
Perry Nations, executive director of the Mississippi Associated General Contractors, said Gov. Haley Barbour has signed two important bills that deal with expediting payment to contractors for public and private works.
“It reduces the wait time from 60 to 45 days for public works and from 60 to 30 days on private works,” explained Nations.
Two workers’ compensation-related bills remained alive at press time, including an employer liability bill that allows self-insured groups to sell employer liability insurance. “We’ve got that past both chambers, and it’s waiting on the OK,” said Nations. “It should pass.”
Legislation governing unclaimed properties is also in the mill, said Nations.
“With this bill, all unclaimed properties would go to the state,” he said. “There was some concern that unclaimed dividends from state self-insured funds may come under the Unclaimed Properties Act, which means that we would have to turn that money over to the state. But we’re with a group self-insurance program, in which each member is jointly and severally liable, which means they are liable for each other’s debts if the fund were to get in trouble. So we feel, and the Legislature has agreed, that any monies that are unclaimed dividends should go back to the benefit of the fund in case there is ever an assessment.”
At press time, three design-build bills were still pending. “They all differ greatly and we’re working right now with David Anderson at the Bureau to come up with language for one of those bills that can satisfy everybody,” explained Nations. “On very narrowly selected projects, it would allow the state to get architects and engineers to design a project and then put it up for bids, with the low bidder getting the job. It’s something that’s being done almost everywhere else. The government’s been doing it for years and they want to try it on a few projects, primarily for the Institutions of Higher Learning. When it’s done right, it’s a good system.”
Because the deadline for final adoption of conference reports is March 27, Nations said, the bill “would have to go to conference and be changed and accepted by both Houses by the 27th.”
Dent has been keeping on eye on legislation concerning guaranteed performance contracts. “It allows a company to analyze the costs at an entity, such as a government agency or university,” he said. “Then the company can come up with a savings based on either new lighting technology or new HVAC technology, a new communications system and the like. In the past, it’s been limited to energy savings, and we’re trying to expand the role of performance contracting so, for example, instead of maintaining an antiquated system, you’ll have the ability to get rid of it and replace it with one where you can gain significant cost savings.”
If Senate Bill 2800, a home repair fraud bill, passes in the Legislature, it would make any home repair fraud over $5,000 a felony.
“Home repair fraud has been designated as just a misdemeanor, yet some fraudulent repairs can easily cost a homeowner $50,000 or so,” said Nations. “That’s a good one for business because that fits everybody. Who hasn’t had home repair?”
Unemployment benefit increase
If Senate Bill 2843 passes, it will increase the maximum unemployment benefit for unemployed workers, said Aldridge.
“It’s now gone to conference over the different amounts passed by the House and Senate,” he explained. “The Senate took the recommendation of a majority of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s (MDES) advisory council, which included NFIB and the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, to increase the benefit effective July 1, 2006, from the current $210 to $215 per week, and an additional increase to $220 per week effective July 1, 2007. The House amended the bill and passed a higher increase, moving instead to $230 per week, effective this July 1, and to $250 weekly on July 1, 2007.”
Every $5 increase in the maximum benefit equals $4.2 million in additional unemployment trust funds expended annually. Therefore, the House version would increase costs to the trust fund, which is fully funded by Mississippi’s employers, by an additional $33.6 million per year upon full implementation, Aldridge pointed out.
“This is the first time that business and labor have not been able to come to a compromise agreement as members of the MDES advisory council prior to a legislative session,” he said. “All that the labor representative on the council requested was a $10 increase effective July 1, 2006. Due to the possible tremendous impact of Hurricane Katrina on the trust fund over the next year, NFIB had proposed a compromise of a $5 increase July 1 and an additional $5 on January 1, 2007, a six-month delay in half of what labor had requested. The labor representative still did not agree. Instead, for the first time, the Legislature is having to fight this battle.”
Workforce Enhancement Training Fund oversight
SB 2469, whose main purpose was to make some technical amendments to current law regarding MDES and unemployment benefit law, was amended in the House to change the oversight of the workforce enhancement training fund from the State Workforce Investment Board to the community colleges, said Aldridge.
“NFIB, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Mississippi Economic Council oppose this change in oversight, which overturns the legislation passed last year (SB 2480) setting up an additional $20 million in new workforce training funds from a special workforce enhancement training tax on employers,” he said. “The business community agreed to this new tax last year in exchange for a reduction in unemployment taxes and for having a voice in the oversight of its use as a part of the State Workforce Investment Board (SWIB). The House amendment takes away the business community’s seat at the table.”
Under last year’s new law, all of the monies from this new special .3% workforce enhancement training tax (made part of the unemployment tax law by approval from the U.S. Department of Labor), which is paid exclusively by employers, is solely used by the state’s community colleges as the official workforce trainer, said Aldridge.
“However, how they could use the money is subject to two components: the Workforce Training Act of 1994 and the annual plan developed by the SWIB,” he said. “The original language is clear. Now is not the time to halt the progress we’re making toward better training our workforce nor take away the SWIB’s oversight, which has been in place less than a year. With the addition of this employer-paid and agreed-to program, we’ve approximately doubled the amount previously appropriated for training our workers in Mississippi. Let’s not move backwards.”
Numerous bills mandating policies to automatically include certain health benefits, which would have increased health insurance premiums, seem to have stalled, while another bill exempting health savings accounts (HSAs) from seizure has gone to a conference committee as a result of various other exemptions added by amendments in the House and Senate, said Aldridge.
“In 2005, the Legislature passed a state income tax deduction for contributions by employers and employees to HSAs similar to the federal tax laws,” he said. “Now under SB 2963, introduced by Sen. Dean Kirby, these HSAs would also be protected from seizure, execution or attachment similar to what the Legislature did a few years ago by exempting IRAs. HSAs are helping our state’s small businesses owners and employees lower health premiums up to 40%. Protecting these accounts will allow employees and the self-employed to use them for their intended purpose: paying medical expenses. There is a federal penalty for using them for any other purpose. Small business owners and their employees are the most uninsured group in our state and nation. We must continue to make every effort to assist them in affording and insuring the availability of funds for medical coverage.”
Other pending legislation addresses the prevention of identification theft, window tinting and adding manpower to a state agency, said Mabus.
“The House has an innovative bill that helps prevent ID theft,” she said. “A consumer can go online and pay $10 to freeze his credit report account, and that stops other people from using his identity. If anyone steals your wallet or digs through your garbage for a social security number or driver’s license or home address, you’re protected. But the flipside of that is, if you want to buy a car, you have to call the reporting bureau and identify yourself to remove the credit freeze. When the paperwork goes through, you can put your freeze back on.”
University of Southern Mississippi political science professor Joseph Parker said the issue of adequately funding public school education is still contentious.
“The business community is really pro-education because it directly affects the quality of workers,” he said. “You can pretty well match up the per capita income in a state with the percentage of the population with a college education. That’s a long-term investment which, at best, doesn’t show up for 15 years, and that’s hard to put on a bumper sticker.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.