Candidates pledge 16th Section land reform, improved elections

by Becky Gillette

Published: October 1,2007

It might not be the most controversial race in state elections, but there is little doubt that the outcome of the election for secretary of state has big implications for the business community in Mississippi.

The Secretary of State’s (SoS) Office oversees state elections, including campaign finance reports. But the largest division in the SoS’s Office is Business Services that serves a variety of business-related needs such as filing for incorporations and partnerships.

Thus far, the visibility of the secretary of state’s campaign has come from the attention-getting ads of Delbert Hosemann, who won the Republican primary after an innovative television advertising campaign turned what could have been a negative — the candidate’s name — into a positive with short, humorous advertisement that showed Hosemann sitting on a park bench next to a older woman who repeatedly bungled his first name.

Some political observers have remarked it will take more than a feel-good ad for Hosemann to be victorious over his opponent, Democratic candidate Robert “Rob” H. Smith, a former state senator and state legislator who received high marks for his oratory skills at the Neshoba County Fair and for running a winning campaign on a shoe-string budget. But

Hosemann says there is plenty of substance to his campaign.
Hosemann’s most innovative campaign plank is to advocate the adoption of a business court in Mississippi.

“The secretary of state is a leader in proposing business laws and reform, and I intend to continue that,” said Hosemann, who has worked as a business attorney for the past 30 years. “I intend to totally revise the state’s business codes including the state’s limited liability statutes and partnership statutes with a goal to bring them up to 2008 standards. The last major revision was in 1987. And as part of that process, we want to consider and propose a business court for Mississippi.”

Hosemann proposes to take business litigation out of the jurisdiction of the circuit courts, which have a large backlog of cases. The goal of the business court would be to have resolution within 12 months within the filing of any litigation.

“These cases are currently being considered by the circuit court, and the circuit court last year had 45,000 cases filed across the state,” Hosemann said. “About 29,000 were criminal matters. Our criminal court system has bogged down our business court, and I believe we need to protect those two and allow business court decisions to be rapid and consistent. The flip side is the criminal system will also be less bogged down so they can address more quickly criminal issues.”

Hosemann said his plan is to make Mississippi’s system the first and most complete business court system in the country so the state wouldn’t have to take second place to any state in the way it addresses business litigation. In talking about the issue during campaign events, Hosemann said he has found good reception to the idea from business owners and lawyers alike, both plaintiffs and defense lawyers.

“We all recognize cost and delays are a death knell for business,” he said, who is a partner at Phelps Dunbar, LLP, in Jackson. “In order for all businesses to prosper, we must have an immediacy of resolution of disputes. Otherwise, it stays on the financial statements as a contingency liability, and it is expensive. Worse yet, businesses have to make decisions on expansions and hiring employees when they are worried and don’t know the resolution of litigation for or against them. All of that is an impediment to a business operating.”

Another top priority is to work with the Legislature to break the stalemate and pass an effective and constitutional Voter Identification Bill, which is opposed by his opponent Smith. Hosemann said voter ID is not the complete solution to comprehensive voter reform, but it is a part of the solution and a lighthouse by which people judge how the state conducts itself in voter matters. He also proposes forming an election reform task force to improve the state’s voting system.

The secretary of state has oversight over state lands include the 16th Section land across the state totaling 640,000 acres that are dedicated to supporting education. Hosemann proposes an inventory of the lands in terms of types of land, terms of leases and the amount paid for leases.

“We will produce the basic information for the public to determine how 16th Section land is being leased in their county,” he said. “Our income last year was $50 million from 16th Section land, so it is very important. We will take the inventory and then use that as a base level for determining a plan for how to operate 640,000 acres. I plan satellite mapping of all 16th Section land. Then, we will work with local school boards in determining the highest and best use for the lands.”

Smith, who has a master’s degree in business administration, also sees it as a priority to improve the rate of return to school districts from management of 16th Section lands. But instead of trying to micromanage the land, he proposes training and certifying school board members annually in how to get the best return.

Annual meetings would be held to hear advice from experts from the private sector in timber management and sales and oil and gas leases. Financial experts would give advice on investing funds to get the highest rate of return.

“If school board members have no real background in leasing or how to invest, they will not perform as good as they can,” said Smith, who has 32 years of experience in real estate and accounting businesses. “More education could create greater revenue to help in the education of school children. Better managers mean better opportunities for students.”

Smith also proposes improvement to the state’s voting system. If elected, he intends to bring together circuit clerks and representatives of local election commissions to come up with a plan to better conduct elections.

“Everyone wants to encourage voting,” Smith said. “But there is discomfort with voting machines and other issues out there that circuit clerks and election commissioners are concerned with. The circuit clerks and election commissioners are the backbone of elections in Mississippi. There are the people who have to get up at 4 a.m. in morning and are not home until midnight on the day of elections. They have the understanding and also have the solutions. For some reason, state leaders forget local elected officials have a better grasp of how processes could be improved. It is a priority with me to make sure circuit clerks and election commissioners are in a partnership with the secretary of state to improve elections in Mississippi.”

Smith said the election officials could help address issues regarding the safety and security of the elections.

Smith, who wrote the Mississippi Farm Reform Act while serving in the Legislature, said he also considers it a priority to salvage family farms in Mississippi. He said the Farm Reform Act has been a success story for economic development in rural Mississippi. He proposes a similar concept with idea of rural development bank that would allow counties to purchase the tax sale property each year. Counties could then earn 18% interest money on tax sales that currently goes to tax sale purchasers.

“And the best thing is Mississippians would not be losing property to out-of-state interests,’ Smith said. “This would not only produce significant revenues, but protect family members from losing family property. The county’s revenue of 18% would be earmarked to the reduce bond indebtedness or reduce ad valorem taxes.”

Smith said a fourth effort would be improving the data collection at the Secretary of State’s Office. He said there are a lot of fragmentation and data collection issues throughout the different departments.

“The secretary of state is the document keeper of public records and public information,” Smith said. “I want to get experts in information technology together to talk about how the Secretary of State could better bring together the data to best serve individuals and businesses in state by putting together a system to lessen the fragmentation that now exists. With new technologies we can address record keeping in a better, more efficient manner.”

For more information, Smith’s campaign Web site is www.voterobsmith.com/. Hosemann’s site is www.delberthosemann.com/.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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