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Roth Hill casino gets go-ahead in Natchez

November 27th, 2011 No comments

In early 2008, developers of a planned casino on Natchez’s Roth Hill appeared before the Mississippi Gaming Commission and got site approval for the project.

Almost four years and a few delays later, Premier Gaming Group received from the MGC at its October meeting permission to begin construction, said Allen Godfrey, the Commission’s executive director.

Receiving permission to build means Premier Gaming, a Kentucky-based casino development company that is spearheading the project, has secured financing for the $43 million project. Kevin Preston, Premier Gaming CEO, wrote in an email to the Mississippi Business Journal last week that construction started the day after the MGC lent its approval. The first step was to drive piles into the ground, he said.

“We’re anticipating a 10-month build,” Preston wrote. The casino could be open by next fall, under that timeline.

That’s a couple years after the original opening date. Premier Gaming was hired to manage the project after the original developers – Natchez Enterprises and the Lane Company – could not secure financing for the project in 2008 as the economy froze the commercial credit markets.

Plans for the casino stalled. Earlier this year, the development group re-upped on its lease of the city-owned property on Roth Hill. The company will begin making lease payments once the casino is open.

The lack of progress caused a stir among Natchez aldermen earlier this year. That group voted to notify Premier Gaming that it was not in compliance of its lease agreement with the city. Lease terms called for significant progress to be made on the project within six months of the agreement being executed in early 2008, including the company locking down financing.

The delays fostered confusion among city officials and Premier Gaming about whether the company actually held a 99-year lease on the property – as Premier Gaming claimed – or if it was merely a lease option.

Natchez  Alderman Dan Dillard told the Mississippi Business Journal earlier this year that Premier Gaming only held a lease option on the property, which had been voided because of the lack of progress on the project. Specifically, financing for the project had yet to be firmed up, as had an approval to build from the MGC.

“My side of the argument is, they didn’t provide substantial progress during the option period, so the option does not just morph into a lease,” Dillard said in February. “That’s been my concern the whole time.”

The parties brokered a deal over the summer that extended the lease-option agreement another six months while Premier Gaming worked to secure financing so it could present details to the MGC.

That agreement was about a month away from expiring when the project got MGC’s approval to proceed with construction.

Roth Hill sits on Natchez’s riverfront and is a part of the Natchez Trails project, a recreation area that winds up and down the city’s bluff highlighting Natchez’s history. The Roth Hill casino will be Natchez’s third casino, joining the Isle of Capri Casino and Hotel and the Grand Soleil Casino and Resort.

Categories: Casinos, News Tags:

If failure is the objective at Ole Miss, Dungy is the perfect candidate

November 22nd, 2011 No comments

This past Saturday morning started as well as any day could.

It was deer season’s first day that allowed the use of guns. I watched the sunrise in a treestand. I was happy.

And then I got a text message at 8:30, from an Ole Miss buddy, one of those types who always seems willing to pass along a rumor, however outrageous it is. “Tony Dungy to Ole Miss?” it read.

I nearly laughed out loud (LOL’ed, in the Internet parlance of our time). And then I heard it again Monday, from a different person. And yet again Tuesday morning from a different person whose monetary contributions to Ole Miss offer access most folks don’t have.

Do I believe it? No. Do I want to believe it? A thousand times, no. It would be a huge mistake, unless you enjoy watching Ole Miss fail at football. Then it would be awesome.

So if the goal of the coaching search is to hire a man who hits a grand slam in name recognition but will absolutely be a disaster in the actual nuts and bolts of coaching — and most importantly, recruiting — at a small school in the SEC, then by all means, Dungy is the guy.

Because Ole Miss gets QBs like Peyton Manning nearly every year.

Right?

Beef plant trial will lay bare the inner workings of complete institutional failure

November 20th, 2011 No comments

Trial set to begin on Dec. 5

Another layer of the beef plant collapse will be peeled back starting Dec. 5 in Hinds County Circuit Court.

The state of Mississippi, its now-defunct Land, Water and Timber Board and the Mississippi Development Authority are suing Facility Construction Management Inc. in effort to recoup some or all of the $54 million the state lost when the cull cattle plant in Oakland closed shortly after it opened in 2004.

Construction of the beef plant started in summer 2002, with Mississippi Beef Processors and its president Richard Hall in charge of the project. Community Bank loaned MBP $21 million, plus a $6.5 million line of credit for operating costs, to build the facility. The state guaranteed the loan through the Mississippi Development Authority.

In December 2002, Hall told the state, before the bank had issued the first loan advance, that the available funds would not cover the cost of construction. Unwilling to bear the risk of the increased cost, Community Bank suspended construction funding, and the state and the bank hired Georgia-based Facility Construction Management Inc. (FCMI) to evaluate the project’s design and its financing structure.

FCMI said then that the construction and budgeting process was deeply flawed and offered to oversee the project build-out for a total compensation package of $2.59 million. The state and the bank accepted that proposal, and contracts were signed in early 2003. This agreement increased the loan amount the state had guaranteed from $21 million to $35 million, according to the complaint.

“It was obvious that Facility Group had wanted to get involved in this project,” said Dorsey Carson, attorney for the plaintiffs. “Facility Group was chosen because they came in and put on a dog-and-pony show and showed how much experience they had in this area. But instead of doing what a design professional should do, they just took over every portion of the project, including renegotiating the contracts. They were the state’s insurance policy. Everybody wanted to make sure this thing succeeded.”

In a project management agreement submitted in July, 2003, the complaint says, FCMI’s total fees rose nearly $4 million, to $6.57 million. The complaint says that figure was the “guaranteed maximum price” FCMI would charge to build and deliver a fully operational beef plant, and that the company would cover any cost over-runs. The guaranteed maximum price to build the plant in its entirety under that agreement was $43 million.

The complaint alleges that FCMI failed to cover the eventual cost overages, did not pay $1.7 million to subcontractors, and pushed the project toward completion even though it knew it was flawed — the complaint accuses the company of hiding an internal memo that pegged the plant as a “money pit” — in order to enrich the company at the expense of Mississippi taxpayers. The complaint also accuses FCMI’s executives of using fraudulent billing practices to receive compensation for work that was never done, money the complaint says was partly used to defray improper contributions to the campaigns of Mississippi politicians.

“Internally they had their own questions about the viability of the plant,” Carson said. “I consider that memo to be a smoking gun. That memo went to the No. 2 guy in the company. It may not have killed the project, but it certainly would have made everybody take a hard, hard second look at it.”

The state is seeking a declaration that FCMI, its subsidiaries, and executives Robert Moultrie, Nixon Cawood and Charles Morehead were in breach of their contract with the state; an order that they pay any outstanding debts to contractors and subcontractors; and punitive damages resulting of the failure of the project. Cawood and Moultrie eventually pleaded guilty to making an illegal contribution to then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, and Morehead pleaded guilty to withholding information in a federal investigation of the plant. All have been released from federal prison. Hall pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering. His original sentence of 96 months was reduced to 64 months because of his cooperation with investigators. Hall is scheduled for release in May 2012, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website.

Attorney General Jim Hood’s spokesperson Jan Schaefer said Hood’s request for federal grand jury records from the investigation of Moultrie, Cawood, Morehead and Hall had not yet been turned over to Hood’s office. Hood requested the records in October, with plans to use them for trial preparation.

The complaint says total loss to the state is in excess of $54 million, not including loss of revenue from the beef plant’s operation.

“They turned it over (when it opened) and they walked away from it,” Carson said, referring to the plant’s short operating time before closure.

“Facility Group, to cover themselves, puts out press releases blaming Richard Hall for everything. Richard Hall became the scapegoat for all this. He did commit fraud, but he committed small-time fraud. These guys are big-time crooks.

“(The agreement) essentially was one where they were acting as the owner and they were acting as the construction manager and the designer, and they had the checkbook. You couldn’t have a situation where the fox was guarding the henhouse any better than the way they set it up.”

Carson said he expects FCMI and its attorneys at Ridgeland-based Butler Snow to use a similar defense once the trial gets underway. Judge Winston Kidd will preside when jury selection starts Dec. 5.

“They’re going to blame it on Richard Hall, they’re going to blame it on the Legislature,” Carson said. Carson added that FCMI’s witness list could potentially include a who’s who of state political and economic development officials, if the presiding judge allows it.

“I’m sure they’re going to try to turn it into a political circus. This thing didn’t fail because there was no product. It failed because of design and construction errors. Everything else has complicated it, but at its core, this is a design and construction negligence case.”

Attorneys for FCMI declined comment.

Categories: Manufacturing, News Tags:

Toyota’s arrival well-deserved for NE Mississippi

November 17th, 2011 No comments

BLUE SPRINGS  — At the “line-off” ceremony Thursday at the massive Toyota facility in Blue Springs, everybody — and I mean everybody – who spoke offered the same reason we were there in the first place: Northeast Mississippi’s workforce is spectacularly skilled.

It’s hard to argue with that. This region was the furniture manufacturing capitol of the state before a lot of those jobs went overseas early in the 21st Century. People here are good at building stuff. Now 2,000 of those people will play some role in building the Corolla.

>> SEE RELATED STORY: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE!

Regular readers know that the hill country was where I was born and raised, and that it’s still my home, even though I live and work in Jackson. So I’m biased, sure, but what I’m about to tell you didn’t come from me. It came from the fellow I sat next to on the media bus once the festivities ended: The people here are the nicest in the world, and it’s not even close.

And he would know. I didn’t catch his name, but he was a correspondent for Al-Jazeera English. He was originally from the United Kingdom, had recently left the BBC, and was now stationed out of Miami.

So when he says the people in Northeast Mississippi are the nicest in the world, it means something. “They’re just over the moon,” he said. He had spent the two days prior to Thursday talking to folks at greasy spoons, gas stations, their homes, anywhere he could find somebody who had an opinion about Toyota. “I wish my work would bring me here more often,” he said.

And that’s what we want people to say about us, right? That we’re nice and we’re good at building stuff. Not just any kind of stuff, but advanced machines like the 10th generation Toyota Corolla, which is the best-selling car in the world.

That’s what Akio Toyoda, whose grandfather started Toyota, said.

“We’re here because of the workforce,”he hammered out in broken English.

“Mississippi’s workforce is the best there is,” Toyota Mississippi President Masafumi Hamaguchi managed to say in even more broken English.

“The first thing Toyota told us when they picked us was that it was because of the workforce,” Gov. Haley Barbour said in his signature drawl.

No matter the style of the language, the message is the same.

That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect, either. If the recession double dips and the economy takes another major tumble, demand for new cars will drop just like it did in 2008 and 2009. That will mean hard decisions have to be made at every Toyota manufacturing plant. A drop in demand is the single reason why Thursday didn’t happen in 2010 instead of 2011.

There could be recalls and quality crises or any number of things. It happens.

But that’s for then. Thursday was a good day in Northeast Mississippi, and the people up here earned it.

Categories: News, Toyota Tags:

Justice Carlson announces his retirement

November 14th, 2011 No comments

Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice George Carlson announced Monday morning that he will retire after he completes his term, which runs through January 2013. I’ve gotten to know Justice Carlson pretty well the past few years (his daughter is married to the guy who was the best man in my wedding. Other than that Chandler fellow, he’s my favorite on the Court). Justice Carlson is a fine public servant who has earned his retirement.

Here’s the full release from the Court:

Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice George C. Carlson Jr. of Batesville today announced that he plans to retire at the end of his term in January 2013. He will complete the term, but will not seek reelection in November 2012.

Justice Carlson, 65, will have completed 30 years of public service as a judge in January 2013, with 11 years of service on the Supreme Court and 19 years as a circuit judge for the 17th Circuit District. Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed him to a vacancy on the Supreme Court effective Nov. 1, 2001.

Justice Carlson said he loves his work and enjoys good health, but looks forward to spending time with his wife, his son and daughter and their spouses, and three grandchildren.

Justice Carlson said, “I feel the Lord has blessed me with good health and the wisdom to realize that it is time to go home to Batesville and enjoy my family in retirement.” 

“I continue to enjoy every day as a public servant for the citizens of Mississippi. I love coming to work every day,” he said.

“My decision to retire in no way involves a waning of energy or enjoyment in the performance of the duties that the citizens of the 33-county northern Supreme Court district have entrusted to me by their votes at the polls in 2004.  I am honored for the trust that they placed in me, and I am honored for the trust that former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove placed in me by way of his appointment of me to this office. Likewise, I must acknowledge the citizens of the five-county 17th Circuit Court District in northwest Mississippi. In 1982, they humbled this then-36-year-old lawyer with their votes, electing me as a circuit judge, thus enabling me to embark upon this incredible journey as a state judge.” 

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said, “Presiding Justice Carlson is a tireless public servant whose life is characterized by hard work, attention to detail, fairness and collegiality. No one worked longer hours or paid more attention to the work of the Court than Justice Carlson. Above all, he demonstrates the highest ethical standards possible in his public and personal life. No person has positively shaped the image of the Court in the past 10 years more than Presiding Justice Carlson.”

The catalyst for Presiding Justice Carlson’s decision to retire came during the 2010 Labor Day weekend, when  his daughter and his daughter-in-law announced that they were pregnant.  “I knew then…that I was ready to return home at the end of this current term,” he said.

He and his wife,  Jane Ivy Russel Carlson, have three grandchildren, ages 2 ½, 7 months and 6 months. His daughter and her family live in Batesville. His son and family live in Atlanta.

While he has an apartment at the Ross Barnett Reservoir and lives there during the work week, his home has always been Batesville. He is an elder in the Batesville Presbyterian Church. He also  serves as the radio play-by-play announcer for his high school alma mater, the South Panola Tigers.

Justice Carlson said, “While the justices on this Court make sacrifices in their service to this state and her citizens, the real sacrifices are made by our families. Through the years, our northern Supreme Court district justices traditionally have commuted back and forth from our home towns to Jackson to perform our constitutional duties while maintaining our church, civic and family responsibilities back home.  Over time, spending the week in Jackson and a brief weekend at home takes its toll.  With this in mind, I implore all northern Supreme Court district lawyers and judges who might consider becoming a candidate for this position to prayerfully consider their decision with their families.

“The timing of my announcement is by design,” Justice Carlson said. “I waited until after the 2011 General Election to make this announcement.  But I wanted those who might be interested in this position to have the opportunity to discuss this important decision with their families who will gather during the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays.

“I have had the honor and privilege of serving with 16 justices on this Court.  Without exception, each justice possessed, and possesses, unique abilities and a genuine desire to fully perform the constitutional duties as a justice on this Court. Thank goodness, we have been diverse in our approaches to the disposition of the cases before us.  This diversity and differences of opinion among the justices, in the end, produce solid opinions grounded in the law after all the issues have been fully vetted. Also, we could not get our work done without our loyal and dedicated staff, including our judicial assistants and law clerks, and those in the clerk’s office, court administration, central legal, business office, State Library, ITS, security, Mississippi Electronic Courts, and Administrative Office of Courts, as well as all other departments.

“Other than the ministry, I feel that there is no greater calling than that of being a public servant.  When I  took the oath of office as a circuit judge in January 1983, my parents presented me with a framed Scripture from Micah 6:8 – ‘And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly before your God?’  I hope I have lived up to this charge.”

Justice Carlson is second in seniority among the nine-member Supreme Court. He  has served as a Presiding Justice since Jan. 5, 2009. The Supreme Court usually works in panels of three justices.  The Chief Justice, the justice with the longest time on the court, presides over one panel.  The two justices next in seniority  preside over the two other panels. 

He is chair of the Supreme Court  Rules Committee on Civil Practice and Procedure. He also is chair of the Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission, which is conducting a comprehensive examination of jury instructions used in state courts and formulating recommendations to the Supreme Court.

Justice Carlson served as a member on the Governor’s Criminal Justice Task Force in 1991, and as a member of the Commission on the Courts in the 21st Century 1992-1993. He served as a member of the Professionalism Committee of the Mississippi Bar 1998-1999, and as a member of the Law School Professionalism Program Task Force 1998-1999. He served as vice-chair of the Mississippi Conference of Circuit Judges 1998-1999, and chair of the Conference  1999-2000.

Justice Carlson is a member and past president of the Panola County Bar Association, and a member and past president of the William C. Keady American Inns of Court. He is a Fellow of the Mississippi Bar Foundation.  He is a member of the American Bar Association, the American Judges Association, the Mississippi Bar, and the Lamar Order of the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Justice Carlson is a 1964 graduate of South Panola High School. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Mississippi State University in 1969, and a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1972. Justice Carlson  graduated from the National Judicial College, University of Nevada, Reno, in October 1982.

Categories: News Tags:

Eminent domain initiative roars to passage, but nothing is settled

November 13th, 2011 No comments

We might have finally found something Mississippians of every political persuasion can agree on: The use of eminent domain for private economic development is a bad idea.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting late last Wednesday afternoon, Initiative 31, which will amend the state Constitution to essentially restrict the use of eminent domain to projects of direct public use, had earned more than 595,000 votes. The initiative needed 50 percent plus one, with the affirmative votes equaling at least 40 percent of total votes cast in all races, to pass. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, 73 percent of the votes cast were in favor of 31.

The 595,000 votes were more than all but one of the winners of the statewide races got. Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves had gotten about 598,000 votes by 3 p.m. last Wednesday.

Eminent domain’s initiative colleagues didn’t come close to that. Personhood failed altogether. Voter ID passed, but got 94,000 fewer votes.

Personhood’s defeat would qualify as a minor upset. There was never very much doubt that Voter ID would pass. Likewise with eminent domain, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who supported it would have thought that it would outpoll Gov.-elect Phil Bryant by 90,000 votes with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and its 200,000 “member families” made eminent domain their single biggest issue the past 18 months. The latest issue of Farm Country, the organization’s magazine, was almost nothing but testimonials from members on the virtues of private property rights.

Nothing is settled, though. The new eminent domain law will almost assuredly be challenged on the grounds that amending the state Constitution – specifically, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights — via ballot initiative is illegal. The Mississippi Supreme Court deferred the issue when Mississippi Development Authority interim executive director Leland Speed challenged it earlier this year, arguing that it would kill any chance the state had of attracting projects like the Toyota and Nissan manufacturing facilities.

Speed had not returned a message left with a MDA spokesperson by the time the Mississippi Business Journal went to press last week. In an interview with the MBJ earlier this year, he said he would most likely challenge the initiative if it passed.

Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president Randy Knight said last week that he had not communicated directly with Speed, but was under the impression that Speed would seek to overturn the law.

“We’re expecting one,” Knight said. “We’re still real optimistic, though. It’s hard to fathom that the Mississippi Supreme Court would do away with something that 73 percent of Mississippians are so strongly in favor of.”

Matt Steffey, a professor at Jackson’s Mississippi College School of Law who has followed each of the three initiatives closely, said the state’s high Court would not decide the issue based on its popularity, but on its legal merits.

“While I think that personhood clearly transcended the limits of what the initiative process can be used for, the eminent domain only arguably does,” he said.

What separates the two amendments, he said, is that the text of the Personhood initiative would have amended the Bill of Rights’ use of the word “person.”

“It sought to fundamentally redefine the balance of liberty contained in the Bill of Rights,” Steffey said. “It essentially took direct aim at the Bill of Rights. That’s not the way the text of the eminent domain initiative reads. So the argument is at least that much removed. The argument will be, in effect, that the Bill of Rights already strikes a balance between private property rights and governmental need. The argument could be that this alters that balance.”

“On the other hand,” Steffey continued, “it doesn’t add to or subtract from or redefine any of the words in the Bill of Rights. In that sense, it’s different. You could argue that it doesn’t modify any existing understanding of state constitutional law. Either way, I’m absolutely certain there will be a challenge to it.”

Categories: Elections, Eminent domain, News, Politics Tags:

Personhood lesson: Freedom of speech a right that should be employed with dignity

November 11th, 2011 No comments

Those who have taken up arms for the United States have given and preserved precious freedoms. One of those is the freedom of speech.

So let’s compare how two of Mississippi’s most recognizable elected officials chose to exercise that freedom when they discussed right before Tuesday’s elections their views on the Personhood amendment, or Initiative 26.

On Monday, Nov. 7, Congressman Gregg Harper was the speaker at the monthly luncheon of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps. When he ended his 20-minute speech, I asked him how he planned to vote on the three ballot initiatives the next day, just like I asked the two agricultural candidates and treasurer candidate Connie Moran before that. Harper said he would vote “yes” on all three, and acknowledged that it “would probably upset some people.”

Here is what Harper said, verbatim, about 26:

“I was surprised (at the amount of opposition to it). I thought it would be a slam dunk early on. I believe life begins at conception. That’s not a hard vote for me in that situation. Planned Parenthood is good. Politically they know how to get things done. If you read that language, and I’ve talked to some OB-GYNs and some other medical folks — nobody, if they’re honest, believes that it will keep a woman from getting birth control pills or stop in vitro fertilization. It won’t stop a doctor from saving the life of the mother if there’s an ectopic pregnancy. Those are things designed to create a stir over an issue.

“But I don’t want to lose sight of this: If I don’t stand up for the life of that unborn child, who’s going to do that? What’s more important? I understand a woman’s right to her body. But I’m also going to say, ‘does that child have any rights whatsoever?’ If we look at the breakdown on most abortions, the overwhelming majority are elective procedures because the mama doesn’t want to have the baby. I think that if we don’t stand up, nobody else is, and I think the process and procedure (of abortion) has been very harmful to our country over the decades.”

Now let’s look at how then-Lt. Gov. and now-Gov.-elect Phil Bryant addressed 26 in an appearance Nov. 4 on an American Family Association radio show. The entire seven-minute interview won’t be transcribed here verbatim because the back-and-forth between the host and Bryant, who is the co-chair of the Yes on 26 Committee, would run into the thousands of words. To listen to the entire interview, click here:

“I just believe that this is one of the reasons I was here,” Bryant said, “that Personhood was our opportunity to say loud and clear to people all over America that we want to end abortion in our time, and I want to stop it here in Mississippi. I believe I was led here by the Lord to help take up this cause, to say that this is something you’ve got to stand for no matter what the political temperature or how the winds blow at you. We want to stand firm for life and I’m just honored to be a part of it, and I believe we’re going to win on Tuesday.”

The host of the show asked Bryant how he felt about Gov. Haley Barbour initially expressing concerns about 26’s ambiguity before revealing a day or two later, at a get-out-the-vote rally for Bryant, that he had indeed voted for the measure. Bryant replied, and I’m paraphrasing, that it was obvious that Barbour had prayed about the matter before voting. Bryant added that we’re still debating some parts of the U.S. Bill of Rights 200 years later, the debate over 26 was no different, and that he appreciated Barbour saying at his event that he had supported 26 with his vote.

The host then suggested that divine intervention had a lot to do with Barbour voting absentee for 26, so he could provide a pre-Election Day jolt to its chances of passing. That’s when Bryant’s tone changed.

“This is a battle of good and evil,” he said. “Let’s just make it plain. There is the evil side, the dark side of the forces, Satan and those that would love to continue to kill children while they’re still in the womb, are out there using every effort that they can, anything at their disposal. Now even in these times, if you talk too much about the fact that evil that does exist, people think there’s something wrong with him. What times are we living in when it is politically incorrect for someone to say that Satan has a hand in this? And you’ve got to understand that we’ve got to fight against the gates of hell to prevail here, and that’s exactly what I’ve been saying. I think when I say those things, I see people recognizing the fact that this is a Biblical battle of good and evil.”

Precisely the same view, wildly different ways of explaining it. One way is clearly better than the other; and it has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with being polite, dignified and respectful.

Categories: Elections, News, Politics Tags:

Eminent domain bridges the great political divide (Updated)

November 9th, 2011 No comments

We might have finally found something Mississippians of every political persuasion can agree on: The use of eminent domain for private economic development is a bad, bad idea.

Just before 11 Tuesday night, Initiative 31, which will amend the state Constitution to essentially restrict the use of eminent domain to projects of direct public use, had earned more than 498,000 votes. The initiative needed 50 percent plus one, with the affirmative votes equaling at least 40 percent of total votes cast in all races, to pass. With 83 percent of precincts reporting, 73 percent of the votes cast were in favor of 31.

The 498,000 votes were more than all but one of the winners of the statewide races got. Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves, who had what could charitably be called token opposition, had gotten about 509,000 votes by 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Eminent domain’s initiative colleagues didn’t come close to that. Personhood, some of whose supporters and opponents need to take a long look in the mirror after the shenanigans of the past few weeks, failed altogether. Voter ID passed, but got 80,000 fewer votes.

Personhood’s defeat would qualify as a minor upset. There was never very much doubt that Voter ID would pass. Likewise with Eminent Domain, but I can’t imagine anyone who supported it dared to dream that it would outpoll Gov.-elect Phil Bryant by 60,000 votes with more than 80 percent of precincts reporting.

The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and its 200,000 “member families” made eminent domain their single biggest issue the past 18 months. (Disclosure: I am a Farm Bureau member). The latest issue of “Farm Country,” the organization’s magazine, was almost nothing but testimonials from members on the virtues of private property rights.

But this is not over, not by a long shot. The new eminent domain law will be challenged on the grounds that amending the state Constitution via ballot initiative is illegal. More than one legal scholar has told me that it could not withstand serious judicial scrutiny. The Mississippi Supreme Court basically punted the issue when Mississippi Development Authority interim executive director Leland speed challenged it earlier this year. Expect another one early next year.

Property rights, especially in our rural state, go beyond the normal wonkish back-and-forth. One’s land is one’s kingdom, so there’s plenty of raw emotion involved whenever the specter of land forcibly swapping private ownership arises.

On the other side of that is the economic development lobby that insists mega-projects like Toyota and Nissan cannot happen without the ability for the state to employ eminent domain.

Nothing is settled, but those who supported 31 deserve to revel in their victory for now.

Wednesday morning update: Initiative 31 is still outpolling every statewide official but Reeves at 9:30. With only 61 out of 1,876 precincts still out, “yes” votes for 31 have reached over 588,000. Reeves has pulled in about 593,000 votes.

Categories: Elections, Eminent domain, News, Politics Tags:

Harper: Yes on all three initiatives. Plus, one man’s take on Ole Miss

November 7th, 2011 1 comment

Congressman Gregg Harper said at the Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon Monday that he will vote “yes” on all three ballot initiatives Tuesday.

That was the newsiest item from his 20-minute speech to maybe 50 people at the University Club in Jackson, but certainly not the most entertaining.

Harper opened with an announcement that Steve Guyton, a longtime Mississippi GOP operative who currently works for Sen. Roger Wicker, would be the new head coach at Ole Miss, replacing the fired Houston Nutt. Chip Reynolds, Harper’s district director, would serve as the new athletic director once Pete Boone leaves some time in 2012.

There were laughs all around.

Putting on my serious face, here’s what I hope happens: that Ole Miss hires somebody for both positions that is a world-class salesman. The new athletic director has to sell the overall program — and the massive capital campaign — to everybody. He has to sell it to those in the luxury boxes and to the folks in the bleachers, and he has to use every method that exists to do so. If he’s pumping gas and a kid walks by wearing an Ole Miss hat, he has to engage that kid and tell him that Ole Miss is the greatest place on earth.

The new coach has to sell the football program to recruits whose high school years have, for the most part, coincided with Ole Miss losing to Vanderbilt, losing to Jacksonville State, and sitting on the bottom of the Western Division standings. He has to make kids who have other SEC scholarship offers believe that Ole Miss is the place where all his dreams will come true.

Mississippi State has men who are really good at each, as hard as it is to admit. AD Scott Stricklin and coach Dan Mullen deserve a world of credit for what they’ve done in Starkville. Radical culture changes within an athletic department are possible, but it requires creative thinking, something that has been in awfully short supply at Ole Miss for longer than I’ve been alive; and a willingness to do things other than the way they’ve always been done.

The Ole Miss brand isn’t worth a lot today. Neither was Mississippi State’s exactly three years ago. State fixed that. Ole Miss had better do the same, or it will be permanently stuck in the realm of irrevelancy it has occupied for some time.

Categories: News, Ole Miss Tags:

Forward Together raises $44 million in just under four months

November 6th, 2011 No comments

Not much has gone right recently for the Ole Miss athletic department.

The Forward Together Campaign is an exception.

The campaign to raise money for new athletic facilities and to expand and improve existing ones kicked off Aug. 9. As of Nov. 1, it had raised $43.8 million of its overall $150 million goal.

That’s a striking contrast to the most important measuring stick for Southeastern Conference athletic departments — the football team.

A cloud that settled over the football program in September 2010 with an overtime loss to lower-division Jacksonville State has lingered. The Rebels are 2-6 (0-5 in the SEC) and have explored various methods of implosion. There were maulings administered by Vanderbilt and Alabama. There were opportunities blown against BYU, Auburn and Arkansas.

A group of folks called Forward Rebels have taken their discontent to the pages of daily newspapers, using full-page ads to promote wholesale changes within the athletic department. Fundraising in that environment is less than ideal. But by any measure, Forward Together’s first four months have been successful.

“I didn’t (expect to hit the $44 million mark by Nov. 1), and I obviously didn’t know when we started that our football season would go the way it has,” said Danny White, executive director of the UMAA Foundation, Ole Miss’ private fundraising arm that is spearheading Forward Together. “That even further amazes me on how successful it’s been.”

White attributes that to a couple things. The first is the funding model that allows for 80 percent of a Capital Gift Agreement to qualify as a tax deduction. A CGA acts as a traditional seat license, and would secure a donor’s seats in the new club level of Vaught-Hemingway’s south end zone or in one of the new suites. The expansion of the stadium’s south end zone is part of the campaign’s $50 million second phase, which also includes upgrades for the Gillom Center that serves several women’s sports. The $100 million first phase would fund a new basketball arena and renovations to existing parts of the football stadium.

“The CGA is like a gift toward priority seating,” White said. “We were looking at the professional model with a seat license, for a lot of reasons. From a funding standpoint, that gives us the reassurance as far as cash flow goes to deal with debt service when we’re talking about projects that are this size. Another thing, we wanted to give our fans the opportunity to have some ownership over their seats, and be able to transfer them and keep them in their family. A lot of donors in our premium areas have asked about that for a while.

“That’s kind of how we came up with the model,” White continued. “We changed it from a seat license to the CGA. It’s more than just changing the name. The structure is set up a little bit differently. It’s set up like a gift and as a pledge because we really wanted to protect tax deductibility for our donors.”

The next major deadline for the campaign is Jan. 6, when the eligibility for early reward premium seating related to the CGAs expires. Putting a timeline on the completion of the $150 million goal will be easier afterward, White said, because how much money is pledged on Jan. 6 will determine when UMAA actually starts to sell the seats. That’s when the $43.8 million that right now is only a pledge will start turning into cash on hand. “We have very strict rules on what we count,” White said. “We don’t book anything that’s not a signed commitment.”

What has also driven the early success of Forward Together is fan emotion, White said. “We can talk about funding models and other approaches, but the ultimate reason this thing has been so successful is Ole Miss donors and alumni are very generous and obviously very passionate about this athletic department.”

That passion has manifested itself, too, with Forward Rebels’ newspaper ads that for the most part have called for athletic director Pete Boone’s ouster. There is no phone number listed on Forward Rebels’ website. Multiple electronic messages seeking comment went unreturned last week.

“We hear about it all the time,” White said of the negative energy around the football program. “This is not a fun time for anybody that loves Ole Miss. There’s a reason the top programs win as consistently as they do. The schools that have the most money from an operating budget standpoint and raise the most money on an annual basis, they win the most. If we want to compete at that level, we have to continue to build our resource base.”

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