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Bill designed to give state timely work-force training set for 2016 return

By TED CARTER

Look for the return in Mississippi’s 2016 legislative session of a work-force training bill Gov. Phil Bryant dubbed last session the “Two-Cars-And-A-Boat” initiative.

The bill authored by Rep. Jeffrey Smith, a Tupelo Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, would allocate $25 million a year for two years to a  program geared to provide a “rapid response” when a company wanting to move to Mississippi needs assurances workers can be trained right away.

The rapid response essentially means a pledge can be made at the outset and carried out without unnecessary delays. Specifically, the rapid response would let the state’s economic development recruiters offer companies customized workforce training that could be established more quickly and with less red tape than current worker training programs, supporters say.

What Mississippi would gain, Gov. Bryant said in touting the same bill last year, is a way to train workers for advanced manufacturing jobs and to create a future generation of Mississippians with paychecks sufficient to afford “two cars and a boat,”

The training money would come from unused portions of the state’s unemployment trust fund, a fund that businesses pay into to cover unemployment compensation to laid off workers.

Backers of the bill say the trust built a sizable reserve as Mississippi’s joblessness numbers declined the past couple of years. Like the 2015 legislation, the new version will have a provision to cut off the work-force funding should the unemployment rate begin rising.

The unemployment trust already covers a $20 million work-force training fund administered through the state’s community college system. That money mainly goes to train workers for businesses expanding in the state.

The unemployment trust is amply funded and the money should be put to work generating new jobs, Rep. Smith said in an interview last week. “It’s totally flush,” he said. “That’s part of the beauty of it. As the Baptists say, ‘The cup runneth over.’”

Smith’s measure would enable the Mississippi Development Authority to work with companies interested in moving to the state to tailor training to fit their needs. The training could come from community colleges, high schools and private sector entities, Smith said, and emphasized the competitive importance of the state having the latitude to act quickly to approve and establish the customized training.

“Let’s say Toyota wanted to put a huge arm of its development in Blue Springs but there may not be a community college that can do” the required scientific-and-technological worker training, Smith said. “You would be able to do some private-sector training.”

Such an arrangement is not without precedent, Smith noted. “On Euro Copter back in 2003 we put $4 million in the legislation to let some of the training be done in Paris, France, because the training is not available here. We also did some private-sector training with Nissan.”

In addition to Bryant, Smith’s 2015 bill had the support of the Mississippi Economic Council, whose chief Blake Wilson hailed the measure as a way rid the “clunkiness” from the state’s work-force training. But the legislation stalled when legislative leaders sought to link it to unrelated tax-cutting bills, Smith said.

On one hand, the leader of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, wanted to tie the measure to elimination of the franchise tax on business assets. House Speaker Philip Gunn wanted to kill the state’s income tax over a 15-year period.

After Smith’s bill passed the House unanimously, the Senate figured the only way to abolish the franchise tax was to tie it to work-force training, Smith said. He lamented that in the end, neither could get the 60 percent majority needed to pass a revenue bill.

In the meantime, Smith said, the state was left in the economic development arena without a means to promise prospects timely training of workers. It’s not what you do if you want to get “a five-star recruit,” he said. “It was known out there” that Mississippi had a work-force training handicap, he added.

The MEC’s Wilson said some dissension arose among legislators over how to approach funding of the training, with some lawmakers wanting to spread out the money drawn from the unemployment trust over a number of years. “We simply ran out of time” in trying to resolve differences, he said in an interview Tuesday.

Wilson said he expects 2016 will be the year. “Everybody gets it,” he said. “Those dollars are sitting there unused. We need to put them to work to put people to work.”

The $20 million allocation in the middle of the last decade for work-force training administered through the communities colleges marked a significant step, Wilson said. “It was a way to let businesses know we can really up the training regimen.”

Likewise, with the rapid-response training, he added. “The $50 million number is important from a bragging-rights” perspective, Wilson said. “The marketing value is great.”

Jay Moon, head of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and chairman of the Mississippi Workforce Investment Board, said Tuesday his organization supported Smith’s bill this year and will next year. “We’re very supportive of anything that enhances work-force skills,” he said.

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