The bill that would allow the next Mississippi Development Authority executive director’s salary to receive unlimited supplements didn’t sit on Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk very long.
Bryant received House Bill 1349 April 17, and signed it on the same day. The bill takes effect immediately.
The bill caps the amount of state money that can fund the MDA chief’s salary at 150 percent of the governor’s salary, which comes out to about $180,000. It puts no such limit on the amount of incentives — whether they’re from private or federal sources – the director can receive.
Supporters of the bill — which easily cleared both chambers of the Legislature – say it will allow Mississippi to attract and keep an A-list economic development executive to take over the MDA. It’s about making Mississippi more competitive, they say. Internet technology pioneer Jim Barksdale is currently filling the director’s post on an interim basis at a salary of $1 a year.
A review of the salaries of gubernatorially appointed economic development bosses in the Southeast shows that Mississippi’s old law already provided for compensation that rivaled each of the bordering states, plus Florida and Georgia.
At the high end of the pay scale was Louisiana, whose secretary of economic development under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal earns $320,000 annually, the highest in the U.S. At the other end of the spectrum was Arkansas, whose head of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission earns $120,000 per year.
Sandwiched between those two are Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Like Mississippi’s old law, the Alabama Development Office director’s salary is set by statute at $162,000, about $18,000 less than former MDA head Gray Swoope made when he left for a similar position in Florida in 2011.
Tennessee’s economic and community development commissioner makes almost exactly what Swoope did ($182,000). Georgia’s business recruitment chief, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in November 2010, makes less than each. Georgia’s open records website reveals that Chris Cummiskey was paid $71,000 in salary the last seven months of fiscal year 2011, which would equate to about $140,000 annually. That’s $40,000 less than Swoope made under Mississippi’s old law.
Right under Louisiana sits Mississippian Swoope. His base salary, paid with state funds, is capped at $130,000. But like Mississippi’s new statute, Florida allows for what that state calls “incentives,” whether they’re from private or federal sources. What’s different from Mississippi’s new law is that Florida puts a cap on those incentives, ensuring that Swoope’s salary does not exceed $300,000.
Freshman Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, offered an amendment during floor debate that would have capped private contributions to the MDA director at 75 percent of the governor’s salary. That would have allowed private incentives to reach about $91,000 before shutting them down. The amendment, which Tindell said Bryant favored, failed. Bryant spokesperson Mick Bullock would not address whether Bryant favored the amendment earlier in April.
Tindell said shortly before Bryant got the bill that any amount of private funds supplementing a public official’s salary makes it easier for that person to act in the best interest of whoever is providing the money, and not necessarily the state’s.
“I’m not saying it is going to happen,” said Tindell, whose background includes serving as an assistant district attorney. “I’m just saying it could. As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen good people do bad things.”
The point that Tindell, and other lawmakers who expressed concern over the bill, makes is a good one: If an existing industry doesn’t like the possibility of a competitor receiving state money to come to Mississippi, the first thing the existing industry will do is consider “supplementing” the MDA boss’ salary. Those supplements will be public record, posted on the MDA’s website.
Perhaps the departure of Swoope, who was a homegrown Mississippian who had been a big part of landing Toyota in Blue Springs and turning the Golden Triangle into an advanced manufacturing hub, stung to the point that lawmakers and elected officials wanted to do whatever it took to ensure that scenario did not repeat itself. Perhaps they figured the best way to do that was to model Mississippi’s new compensation law after Florida’s (even though Florida puts a cap on incentives and Mississippi does not).
“The Legislature has taken action to ensure that our state can draw and retain a qualified candidate,” Bullock said right before the bill hit Bryant’s desk.