MDA salary bill awaits Bryant’s signature

Gov. Phil Bryant received a bill late last week that would allow private money to supplement the salary of whoever is the next executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority.

Internet technology pioneer Jim Barksdale currently serves in that position on an interim basis, for the price of $1 a year. His predecessor, Leland Speed, received the same salary.

The next person to occupy the spot, under the terms of the bill, could theoretically receive unlimited compensation. House Bill 1349 avoided conference committee last week when representatives, after contentious debate, voted to concur with an amendment tacked onto the bill in the Senate that would require public disclosure of private supplements to the MDA chief’s pay. The payments would be posted on the MDA’s website.

There would be no cap on the private supplements, making the next MDA director’s salary ceiling non-existent. Before the Senate returned the bill to the House, freshman Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, offered an amendment that would have capped the private money at 75 percent of the governor’s salary, which is roughly $120,000. The bill already would allow state contributions toward the MDA boss’ salary to be 150 percent of that, or about $180,000.

Supporters said the measure is designed to help the state gain and keep a qualified economic development executive. The last full-time MDA director, Gray Swoope, left in 2010 for a similar, higher-paying job in Florida.

“I understand we’re trying to get the best person possible, and I understand that the market might require a little bit more money,” Tindell said during an interview last week. “I also understand these are tough times and maybe we don’t have enough money in the general fund, but I have some general concerns that public positions having private funds supplement their salaries can in some situations lead to an undue or improper influence over a public official. I’m not saying that will happen with whoever they hire. I’m just saying that it could.”

Tindell was one of four senators who voted against the measure. Tindell said Bryant did not disapprove of his amendment that would have set a limit on the amount of private money at 75 percent of the governor’s salary. “The cap to me would kind of level the playing field for everybody. It would have kept one or two entities from controlling the process,” Tindell said. One good part of the bill was the disclosure requirement. That came as a result of a committee amendment. The bill’s original language required that private supplements remain hidden, even to the MDA director.

“I think full disclosure is always better,” Tindell said. “If there’s disclosure, we know he knows. If there’s not disclosure, we don’t know who knows.” Tindell said several other states allow private supplements to their economic development directors’ salaries. Some have a cap; some do not.

Bryant spokesperson Mick Bullock would not address last week how Bryant felt about the cap, writing in a statement that “Mississippi must often compete with other states to attract and develop business, and after losing a recent MDA director to a sister state that offered more competitive compensation, the Legislature has taken action to ensure that our state can draw and retain a qualified candidate.”

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was one of the representatives who voted to send the bill to conference committee, rather than send it straight to Bryant. “I don’t care if we have to pay the MDA director a half-million dollars, the taxpayers ought to pay it,” he said shortly after last Wednesday morning’s vote. “This bill sucks.”

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