State labor department alive again

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Published: October 23,2000

JACKSON – Even though Mississippi legislators shot down a bill earlier this year that would have authorized the formation of a state department of labor, the issue

has resurfaced as a possible agenda item for the 2001 legislative session, drawing much speculation from the business community.

Earlier this month, a senate subcommittee, headed by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, began holding hearings on the creation

of a state department of labor, supported by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who has said that taxpayers would save money by combining existing offices scattered among

various state agencies, and would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the coordination of labor matters with a streamlined organization.

“It is our goal to provide training and retraining for our workforce, and to streamline our agencies to provide one point of contact for the people of Mississippi,” said

Musgrove. “We support maximizing federal funds that can be accessed from the U. S. Department of Labor and used in workforce training across the state of

Mississippi.”

The first of five hearings included testimony from labor representatives, and business representatives are expected to testify this week, with a report due on the

lieutenant governor’s desk by the end of November, said Gordon.

When asked his position on the state labor department issue, Gordon said that, as SAC chairman, he was not in favor of increasing the size of bureaucracy.

“We don’t know if this will be a legislative item in the next session,” Gordon said. “Over the last 20 years, various departments have been consolidated to make more

efficient use of state funds. We’re looking for the best way to insure that we do not lose federal dollars, and that we use state funds as efficiently as possible.”

Senate Bill 2668, which would have created the Mississippi Department of Labor-Management Relations by July 1, 2001, died in committee March 7. That bill called

for the new state agency to consist of a governor-appointed director and five appointed commission members over five agencies: employment security, workplace

safety and health, job development and training, employee relations and job discrimination and disabled employee assistance. But subsequent bills will determine the

makeup, which could include an appointed official, perhaps a labor union representative, or an elected official, along with the formation of several agencies. The

passage of a bill with a governor-appointed director would yield Musgrove with consolidated power he does not currently possess.

In less than a year at the helm, Musgrove has successfully accomplished several items on his agenda, including the passage of the state’s new economic development

plan in a three-day special session in late August that political observers estimated would not be so easy.

“The labor department issue is one in which a lot of legislators are walking the fence,” said a Capitol insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Earlier this year, Musgrove said that the state had to return more than $50 million in federal funds because of the absence of a labor department.

“There have been reports that the state of Mississippi is not receiving millions dollars in federal funds because of the lack of a state labor department, but in our

research, we can find no indication that the state of Mississippi has lost any money because of that,” said Jerry McBride, president of Mississippi Manufacturers

Association. “When money is authorized to be used by the state, it can be directed by the governor to whatever state agency he chooses. Whether you have

something designated to a department of labor makes no difference.”

Others said the funds – namely, Welfare to Work money – were returned because available TANF funding was sufficient.

“That was not determined by having a department of labor,” said McBride. “It was determined by whether or not Gov. Fordice and the folks working for him applied

for it. It should be noted there are many other states that did not apply for this particular TANF money.”

Others have compared a state labor department to a taxpayer-assisted war chest that would serve primarily to increase the power of unions.

“Generally, businesses are opposed to establishing a department of labor for fear that it will create additional bureaucracy that businesses will have to report to,” said

McBride. “For example, there’s been talk about a state OSHA. But if we had a state OSHA, businesses would also have to report to the existing federal OSHA

because there’s no provision, nor plans, for the federal OSHA to pull out of the state.”

In most states with a true department of labor, the agency is controlled by organized labor, McBride said.

“In Mississippi’s case, having someone in charge from the 5.6% of the workforce that is unionized would not be representative of the other 94.4% of the workers,” he

said.

Brad Morris, publisher of [ITAL]MS Pol,[ITAL] a newsletter that covers politics in the state, said legislation to create a state labor department would keep recurring,

probably for the duration of Musgrove’s term.

“Gov. Musgrove has stated support for it and will keep pushing for it,” he has said. “More bills will be presented next year for it. It depends on the support in the

Legislature for it. This year, there wasn’t, but I think that has yet to be decided.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.

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