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MDES hearing takes unexpected turn

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee convened May 14 to kick around the idea of reauthorizing the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES).

It turned out most of the legislative kicking was directed at Tommy Dale Favre, executive director of the agency whose two major functions are providing job training programs and administering benefits to unemployed Mississippians.

Favre showed up at the meeting prepared to discuss the agency’s advertising practices, since that was the reason lawmakers had given for not reauthorizing MDES before the end of the regular session. The issue will be on the agenda when lawmakers are called back to Jackson for a special session, most likely before the end of May.

The agency, which is entirely federally funded, will lose its money and be unable to operate if it is not given the green light before the next fiscal year begins July 1. A Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Committee report had studied the advertising practices of 15 state agencies, of which MDES is one, and highlighted the amount of money each agency spent on advertising its programs and services. The report said that MDES was compliant with state laws regarding state agency advertising.

In her opening statement to the committee, Favre said she was prepared to address any concerns committee members had about the agency’s advertising practices.

But that’s not what the committee wanted to talk about.

In the hour Favre spent answering questions and fielding comments, she eventually found herself defending Mississippi’s unemployment benefits, which are $210 per week. According to Pete Fleming of the U.S. Department of Labor, who was also in attendance, that figure is lowest in the nation. Alabama, at $220 a week, ranks just above Mississippi.

Favre said her agency has tried the past three years to raise unemployment benefits, to no avail because such an increase would have to be approved by the Legislature.

“We understand that we are very low in that area,” Favre said, adding that MDES’s rate advisory council has proposed a $10 increase in unemployment benefits for this year and another $10 increase for next year.

Rep. Sherra Hillman Lane, D-Waynesboro, was not impressed.

“Why would they want only a $10 increase?” Lane asked. “Gas is up. Milk is up. Everything is higher than it was the last time benefits increased (in 2002).”

Hillman was part of a lineup of House Democrats — along with Tyrone Ellis of Starkville, Earle Banks of Jackson, Willie Perkins Sr. of Greenwood and Rufus Straughter of Belzoni — who grilled Favre on everything from her salary to the MDES trust fund, and if those two figures had any direct bearing on unemployment benefits remaining the same. At one point, Straughter asked Favre if her salary had remained stagnant the last four years. When Favre responded that her salary was a matter of public record, Straughter replied, “I didn’t ask for all that.”

Favre even admitted that she was unprepared to immediately provide several sets of facts and figures that related to Mississippi’s unemployment benfits.

“I was told this was going to be about advertising, not unemployment benefits,” Favre said.

What little advertising policy was discuss mostly revolved around representatives asking Favre if her agency was in compliance with state advertising laws. According to the PEER report, MDES is compliant.

Favre defended the need for her organization — outside of the fact that federal law says it has to be reauthorized — and explained that most of MDES’ advertising money is spent on legals that open up a project to bidders. In fiscal year 2006, the year the PEER report took a look at, MDES spent roughly $1.2 million on advertising, mostly, Favre said, to alert those affected by Hurricane Katrina to the spots where they could receive disaster unemployment benefits.

“We feel like we have a good report,” Favre said. “We’re not big spenders. This has created more than undue anxiety for our employees. I would assume it’s created grief for employers who could lose $410 million in tax credits (for paying into the unemployment system.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .


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