Gov. Haley Barbour has taken two trips the past week and a half related to promoting economic development in the state. One he will discuss; the other remains a state secret.
Philadelphia, Pa., was the site of the out-in-the-open meeting between President-elect Barack Obama and the nation’s governors during which the parameters of a possible public works stimulus package were discussed.
Obama hopes to have a package finalized by January and ready to for his signature shortly after he takes office.
The goal would be to end the largest and longest economic slump the U.S. has seen since World War II, with jobs created through the building and improvement of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and sewer and transmission lines.
Barbour greeted the idea of a possible public works boost with enthusiasm. One qualifier he supports is the federal government granting states wide-ranging authority as to where the money would go – notably, the assurance that one-time money would not fund recurring expenses. Barbour even had a project in mind he says would benefit greatly.
“For instance, our public works project at the Port of Gulfport in the wake of Katrina is a gigantic economic development project that meets the needs of not only creating jobs in the short term, but to create infrastructure that will be to the long-term benefit of the economy,” he said.
When infrastructure improvement is thrown around, Barbour said, most of the attention goes immediately to highways and bridges. Lost in the frenzy are things like the deferred maintenance projects at Mississippi’s community colleges and universities, Barbour said. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, raised that point in the meeting with Obama.
“That’s something that always seems to fall to the bottom of the list in the Legislature when money’s tight,” Barbour said.
A trip whose details Barbour did not discuss in a news conference Dec. 3 was his overseas excursion to Germany to woo an international company to Mississippi.
Barbour, along with staff from the Mississippi Development Authority, met with executives from an unknown company to sell them on Mississippi as a possible destination to set up shop.
It is Barbour’s standard policy not to publicly disclose names and numbers when the state is pursuing an economic development project. Barbour cited the back and forth with Toyota as an example of how keeping a negotiation process under wraps, at the request of the company, can bode well for Mississippi. Toyota’s Prius production plant in Blue Springs is scheduled to open in late 2010.
Barbour’s trip to Germany coincided with his appearance at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, to become an honorary patron of the school’s University Philosophical Society. The state picked up the tab only for Barbour’s trip to Germany. Barbour said either he or his political action committee would pay for the trip to Ireland.
The little Barbour revealed about his Germany trip pointed toward the possibility that the state could have a major economic development project in the offing.
“When you have a bad economy like we have now, and you have live prospects that might bring jobs to the state, it’s all the more important to really work hard to make them know that we want them in Mississippi,” Barbour said. “We’re not immune to what’s happening in the national economy. We see job loss. It’s the state’s job to try to replace the jobs that we lose with better-skilled, higher-paying jobs and that is worth spending the taxpayers’ money for.”
Barbour said the state has been pursing the project for longer than a year. He said the company is “pretty far along” in the decision-making process and speculated that an announcement could be made this spring.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .