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Session ‘07: biz boosters give take on Legislature

The 2007 legislative session saw lawmakers pass the largest general fund budget in Mississippi history — $5.5 billion — with nearly two-thirds earmarked for education spending. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) for public schools was finally fully funded — it costs an extra $188 million — and community colleges and institutions of higher learning nabbed more money, $35 million and $85 million, respectively.

But the political hot potato bill calling for lowering the grocery tax from 7%–the highest rate in the nation — to 3.5% and boosting cigarette tax from 18¢ to $1 per pack failed. “That was probably the biggest line in the sand,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “Everybody knows (Senate Finance Chair) Tommy Robertson just stood on that.”

All in all, business leaders say, the 90-day legislative session that ended March 30 was productive for an election year.

“I don’t feel as blistered or fatigued after this session as others, and I think part of it is due to the fact that we weren’t rich, but we had adequate money,” said Wiseman. “It was just the right amount. (Former House Appropriations Committee) Chairman (Charlie) Capps used to say it was almost harder to budget a surplus than to cobble together a budget when you don’t have enough money.”

‘Great tribute’

Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) president Blake Wilson called the session “a great tribute to collaboration and cooperation,” praising state lawmakers for “correcting some of the finger-in-dike funding approaches of the past” and leaving the state with a rainy day fund of more than $270 million.

Legislators also funded the first phase of State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds’ comprehensive five-year $120 million proposal — Redesigning Education for the 21st Century Workforce in Mississippi — designed to better prepare high school students for the workplace, and to lower the state’s dropout rate, which now hovers at 40%.

“Education continues to be one of the key parts of making the state better,” said Scott Waller, MEC senior vice president of public affairs. “We have to have a better workforce in the state. We’re proving it can be done. We’re attracting more industry. Just look at the last five years with Nissan bringing an entire industry to the state, and now Toyota has selected the state.”

Coast in focus

The Mississippi Gulf Coast took a front seat with lawmakers concerned about affordable insurance availability in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The passage of House Bill 1500 revamps and funnels $80 million over four years into the wind pool to quell private market worries.

“NFIB supported this legislation, which is desperately needed to help Gulf Coast individuals and businesses get back on their feet as soon as possible without significantly penalizing other insureds across the state,” said Ron Aldridge, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), noting that many folks in the coastal region experienced insurance increases of 400% to 900%. “This new law will lower Wind Pool premiums for the six coastal counties an additional $500 per policy per year for the next four years.”

‘Fine session’

Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA) president Jay Moon called the 2007 legislative assembly “a fine session.”

“The highlight from a manufacturing standpoint was the approval of the Toyota incentive package,” he said, referring to the nearly $300 million incentive package the Japanese automaker will receive for building a $1.3-billion plant in Northeast Mississippi, slated to open in 2010. “No question that was a strong effort by the House, Senate and Gov. Barbour all coming together in order to make that project a reality.”

MMA monitored an eminent domain bill that didn’t come out of committee, a major immigration bill that would have made hiring illegal aliens a felony, and a bill to allow for property tax exemption for pollution control equipment, which didn’t pass, either.

“There were some bills we wanted to see pass,” said Moon, “but this was also the sort of session more geared to stopping legislation rather than getting proposals through.”

Contributing columnist Lynne Jeter writes regularly on business travel — and the business of travel — for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at backstagepass4travel@yahoo.com


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