Business around Jackson picks up when pols in town

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Published: January 7,2008

Mississippi legislators are coming back to the metro area and getting settled in as they look forward to a new session. The 2008 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday, January 8. At that time, a flurry of receptions and dinners will begin, ensuring that legislators will be well fed.

“Sometimes, there’s just too much food available,” mused Sen. Billy Hewes III of Gulfport. “It seems like there is always something going on during session, from receptions to dinners with different groups.”

The bulk of the members occupy hotels rooms for lodging. Their income, though touted to be excessive, is for the rank and file around $25,000 per year. Each gets a per diem stipend, as well as some incidental travel expenses, but the luxuries of single living are limited. Many of the legislators share costs. Their entertainment expenditures have been limited in recent years, as the sessions have had days stretching into the middle evenings due to the Hurricane Katrina-related issues and compounded needs. The receptions filled the entertainment void. Beyond that, some legislators find a “sponsor” for a dinner and those are, for the most part, still Jackson based as a rule, but some are moving to the southern Madison areas.

In addition to restaurants and hotels, the businesses that benefit the most from in-town legislators are convenience related — gas, sundry, fast food, dry cleaners, pharmacy, auto repair, barber shops and salons and other service industry businesses.

Hewes, like several other legislators, lives in an apartment complex near the Capitol. “About 10 members of the House and Senate live there.”

The apartment gives him a sense of home, and provides him with a kitchen for times when he tires of reception food or when he prefers not to go out to eat. “I enjoy being in Jackson, because I enjoy the work I do here, as well as the camaraderie I find with the other legislators. But I do miss the time away from my family, and I usually head home on the weekends.”

Sen. Doug Davis of Hernando has the same idea.

“When I was first elected in 2004, I stayed at the Best Western downtown. But in the summer of 2005, I purchased a condo in Brandon.” Davis said that he was familiar with the area, as he had lived there when he was a student at Mississippi College. John M. Sullivan II has been a lobbyist since 1985. He is with Business Development/Government Affairs with GPAC llc in Jackson. “When I started, there were just a few registered lobbyists. Now there are plenty. What you have with the legislative session is a four-month industry for the City of Jackson. You have 122 representatives and 52 senators who come to town, many with their families, and they spend their money here. Lobbying itself has become an industry, as well, and it actually puts money back into the city coffers. All you have to do is look at the standing sales receipts from businesses within the three-mile area around the Capital.”

According to Sullivan, receptions are common among most all mid-to-large associations. “The average cost is in the neighborhood of $6,500. Some end-of-session ‘parties’ will come together, but those are designed around the conference time of the session and are generally close to the Capitol and very casual. Two Sisters has been the site for the last several years.” Sullivan explained that conference is the final leg of the work load of the session where differences in key appropriations or significant tax issues are labored on many until the late hours. “Much of the capitol staff, including legal, administrative, etc., are the focus for those gatherings.”

One local business that looks forward to the legislators coming back to town is Tico’s Steak House in Ridgeland. A favorite spot for legislators, Tico’s caters to the political crowd. Sherrill Widdig, manager of Tico’s, has seen many deals made over a nice cut of beef. “Tico’s has become the place to see and be seen,” said Widdig. “Part of that is because our owner, Tico Hoffman, is great about making everyone feel welcomed and important. We provide great food in a nice atmosphere, served by an attentive wait staff. It has all the ingredients for a great dinner.”

Legislators aren’t the only ones drawn to the metro Jackson area during the session. On January 10, the Mississippi Economic Council hosts its annual A Capital Day. So far, more than 1,000 people are registered for the legislative event that is designed to allow business leaders from across the state to visit with newly elected legislators, legislative leaders and other newly elected officials during the first week of the regular legislative session. The morning event accommodates the needs of businesspeople who want to come to Jackson for a legislative event but prefer not to stay overnight, particularly during the first week of session. Events will begin at 8:30 a.m. at the new Mississippi Farmers Market on High Street then move to the Capitol for a briefing and conclude with lunch at Dennery’s.

Of course, folks from all over the state will also come to town for Barbour’s inauguration. “This year’s events will be much smaller,” said Judy Lewis of the Governor’s Inaugural Office. When Barbour was inaugurated to his first term as governor, lavish events were held around the state, featuring big-name entertainers like Kenny Rogers, the Gatlin Brothers and Steve Azar. “Since this is his second term in office, Gov. Barbour wanted to scale things down a bit.”

“This year’s events will begin with a private church service on January 12 at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson,” said Lewis. “Gov. Barbour’s home church in Yazoo City will also be involved. An invitation-only gospel prayer breakfast will be held at the Ag Museum on Monday morning, January 14.”

The actual inauguration will take place Tuesday, January 15 on the steps of the south face of the New Capitol. “The National Guard Band will begin playing at 10:30 a.m., and the swearing in will take place at 11 a.m.,” Lewis said. “The ceremony will be followed by a parade in downtown Jackson at 1:30 p.m. The Governor’s Mansion will be open for tours to the public at 3 p.m.”

The inaugural ball will be held at the Mississippi Coliseum beginning at 8 p.m. “It won’t be the big gala we had last time,” said Lewis. “But it will be a fun event. We are going with Mississippi talent for the entertainment, with lots of rhythm and blues. It will have a very strong Mississippi theme this year.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer S.J. Anderson at andersonwrites@yahoo.com .

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