Archive for February, 2012

Beckett: PSC jurisdiction will be included in HB 825

February 29th, 2012 No comments

The House Public Utilities Committee Wednesday morning tabled HB 825, a bill that has caused quite a bit of hue and cry over the past few days.

Most of that has come from members of the Public Service Commission, who were upset that it would strip them of jurisdiction over customer complaints related to AT&T. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz have led the charge on that front.

Public Utilities chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said he hoped to hold another committee meeting Thursday afternoon after the House adjourns to take it up again. The committee decided to table the bill after a flurry of amendments.

Beckett told reporters that the PSC regaining jurisdiction over AT&T customer complaints will be “part of the deal” in any version of the bill that eventually clears committee and is sent to the House floor.

“That’s their biggest concern, and it’s the biggest concern I’ve heard from other members,” Beckett said.

What the bill does not do is require AT&T to serve as a “carrier of last resort” in rural areas. It also doesn’t require AT&T to file service data with the PSC.

“It’s a competitive market,” Beckett said. “I don’t see them (AT&T) going out here and flipping the switch and unhooking customers. I think they’ll continue to provide that, and as technology changes I think there will be more and more opportunities for people to get service.”

Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, declined to talk to reporters Wednesday morning.

Beef Plant lawsuit enters last pre-trial stages

February 28th, 2012 No comments

The pre-trial phase of the Beef Plant litigation is about to end.

The state and the private counsel it hired is suing Georgia-based Facilities Group, in an attempt to recoup the roughly $55 million the state lost when the cull cattle facility in Oakland failed. Facilities Group was brought on board to manage the construction of the plant. Three of its executives were eventually convicted of making an illegal gratuity to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s campaign.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd took two motions under advisement at a hearing Monday. Lawyers for the Facilities Group argued a motion for summary judgment, which would effectively throw out the case.  Plaintiffs argued a motion to give them possession of the records from the grand jury proceedings that led to the indictment of the Facilities Group executives and Richard Hall, who the state hired to run the facility.

Kidd didn’t rule on either motion Monday, but said he would by late this week or early next week. The trial is scheduled to start March 19.

Dorsey Carson, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview Tuesday morning that two mediation sessions have failed to render a settlement. Carson didn’t sound optimistic one would be reached before it’s time to pick the jury.

“Both sides have exchanged offers but frankly I don’t think they are going to come up with enough money (to settle it),” Carson said.

It’s likely settlement talks will take on a keen sense of urgency if Kidd denies the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, which represents their last chance to terminate the litigation short of settling. If March 19 arrives and there’s still no agreement, negotiations will probably get super serious.

State sells land to Eastover developers

February 24th, 2012 No comments

The mixed-use development in Northeast Jackson that has been planned for several years took a giant leap Friday afternoon.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s office said in a press release that the state has sold the land where The District at Eastover will sit. It’s the site of the Old Blind School.

This jives with what developers Ted Duckworth and Breck Hines told the MBJ late last year. They hoped to close on the land the early part of this year, complete site prep and environmental work and start construction on the $110 million project by late summer or early fall.

Here’s the full release:

The former campus of the Mississippi School for the Blind in Jackson has a new owner as of today and plans are underway for a mixed-use development on 21 acres.


The land was purchased by District Land Development Company, LLC for $3.3 million, and the site’s redevelopment into “The District at Eastover” is estimated to generate 600 jobs. The project, once fully built-out, has the potential to bring in about $1.9 million annually to the city and about $4.9 million annually to the state.


“This development will bring jobs and services to our capital city,” Gov. Phil Bryant said. “This purchase puts a vacant site to use and has promise for the Jackson metro area.”


In 2010, lawmakers passed a bill that allows the Department of Finance and Administration to seek proposals from developers to build mixed-use developments as well as lease or sell land to developers. This Senate bill was approved when Bryant served as lieutenant governor.


DFA issued a request for proposals (RFP) in September 2010, and The District Land Development Company, LLC, through its manager Duckworth Realty, won the bid. Duckworth Realty is managed by Ted Duckworth and Breck Hines.


The District at Eastover will feature 500,000 square feet of retail, office, hotel, restaurants and residential space. The development will be family oriented, and it maintains the property’s natural assets, such as trees and public green spaces. Retail areas will have cafes and outdoor dining.


“We are pleased to have the opportunity to design a special development that provides our Metropolitan community a pedestrian-friendly environment to shop, dine, live and work,” said Ted Duckworth, the project developer. “The project will benefit from its successful surroundings, as it sits in one of most affluent and densely populated areas in the State.


“We began working on this project in 2006 with the desire to create a special place that further enhances the quality of life for the people of Jackson and supports the growth occurring throughout the metro area. We are excited to now take the next step in that process.”


This price of $3.3 million was based on an average of two appraisals procured by DFA. In accordance with the legislation, $1.2 million of the funds from the sale will be used to build a new storage and building maintenance facility on the grounds of the MS School for the Blind and a new residence for the superintendent of the Mississippi School for the Blind. The balance of the funds will be deposited into a special fund designated as the School for the Blind Trust Fund.


“We believe that this project will spark tremendous economic development opportunities and growth for Jackson and Mississippi,” Kevin J. Upchurch, executive director of the Department of Finance and Administration said.

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Bentz, Presley agree: AT&T oversight removal bill bad business

February 24th, 2012 1 comment

The Mississippi Public Service Commission is not particularly known for agreeing on a whole lot.

The opposite of that is true when it comes to House Bill 825. The bill, filed by Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, has been referred to the Public Utilities Committee, which Beckett chairs.

What the bill would do is essentially remove a lot of functions AT&T performs from PSC jurisdiction. Television and radio stations already enjoy this exemption. The legislation would extend it to AT&T, and shift that oversight to the federal government. That’s the simple explanation, anyway.

Commissioners Leonard Bentz, a Republican who represents the Southern District; and Brandon Presley, a Democrat representing the Northern District, both have issued lengthy statements that generally paint the bill as one of the worst ideas to circulate around the Capitol in some time. That’s significant, because Bentz and Presley don’t see eye to eye all that often.

Presley called it a “corporate wish list.” Bentz said it would make AT&T’s customer service operations — which have become infamous for their ability to frustrate customers — worse.

One thing is certain. Beckett, since he wrote the bill, will surely air it in front of the Public Utilities Committee. You can bet there will be some lawmakers who hear from folks who don’t like this.

Statements in full from Bentz and Presley:

Public Service Commission Chairman Leonard Bentz announced today his opposition to HB 825, which would remove all oversight which the Mississippi Public Service Commission has over AT&T.

 “This is a very bad bill for consumers in Mississippi,” Commissioner Bentz stated. “Even though AT&T will tell you that the oversight that we [PSC] have is limited, the little we do have is piece of mind for the consumers.”

“You don’t have to think very long to understand why this bill is bad. Think back to last time you called in a problem to AT&T and the lack of customer service you received. This bill would make it worse. It is important to understand AT&T will lead you to believe this bill will affect only a small number of customers, but that is not so. As it stands right now, all customers with AT&T have the ability to file complaints with the Public Service Commission, and have the PSC on their side to help them navigate the system. The bill clearly states customer appeals will be removed from the PSC jurisdiction.

“Further, AT&T states they are at a competitive disadvantage. How can you be at a disadvantage when you own more infrastructure and receive more Universal Service Fund monies than any other telecommunication company? The bill would also limit the Commission’s oversight of the Universal Service Fund. This is a critical fund in which AT&T receives monies to invest in their infrastructure. In the proposed bill this would give the oversight to the federal government,” Bentz added.

“The avenue for customer complaint appeals to the PSC will also be removed. I guess if a consumer had a complaint they could call the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  If AT&T can explain to me how this bill will build better customer service by calling a Washington bureaucrat versus an elected Mississippian, I will be their biggest cheerleader,” Bentz said.

“I hope legislators reviewing this AT&T bill (HB 825) will contact the PSC and give us an opportunity for input. AT&T employs great employees in Mississippi and I am sure they will tell you AT&T has become more and more like a corporate run robot organization. If AT&T wants a competitive advantage, I have three recommendations. Provide a quality service, listen to your customers and treat your customers as clients. And that does not take any legislation to accomplish.” Bentz concluded.

And here’s Presley’s:

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said today that House Bill 825 would totally strip the PSC of any authority to hold AT&T accountable for rate increases and lousy landline and cell phone coverage. Presley said the bill was requested by AT&T as retaliation against the PSC for denying a rate increase and for complaining of poor cellular and residential phone service. The PSC won a case in the Mississippi Supreme Court to limit charges to customers after AT&T appealed the PSC’s ruling.

“This bill is a corporate wish list that gives AT&T the permission to run over and take advantage of every single customer in Mississippi and no one can say one thing to them about it.” Presley said. “Complaints against AT&T have gone up dramatically over the past few years, yet this bill rewards them by taking the cop off the beat that is there to protect customers”

“It is hard to believe that the Legislature could honestly think that a company with such a terrible track record should be taken out from under the PSC’s authority” Presley added.

Presley said the Legislature passed the first phase of deregulation in 2006 an since then complaints to the Commission about billing errors, poor service and the like have risen from 1,735 in 2006 to 4,361 in 2011 an increase of over 150% .“This is evidence enough of why this bill is bad for consumers”.

Along with removing all of the Public Service Commission’s authority to investigate abuses, extortion and customer complaints, House Bill 825 also removes the Commission’s authority to designate conditions for AT&T’s receiving of millions in federal funds to promote rural cell phone service. Presley said the Commission’s authority to place conditions on those dollars has been the main tool to increase cell phone coverage in rural counties. “Rural Mississippi’s interest are gutted in this bill.” Presley said.

Presley said there should be extensive hearings held on this matter. “AT&T and their high paid lobbyists are spreading lies all around the Capitol, the Legislature should listen to the regulators who are here to protect the public.”

Moak drops initiative hint

February 20th, 2012 No comments

House Minority Leader Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, dropped a strong hint at today’s meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps that Democrats could turn to the voter initiative process to advance some of their policies.

“The initiative and referendum process is a great tool for the minority,” Moak told the 40 or so people at the Capitol Club.

Moak, like everybody else, noticed during last fall’s elections that the three initiatives on the ballot generated more conversation than any of the candidates, including those running for statewide office. “They drove up turnout in a lot of places,” Moak said.

I asked Moak what issues Democratic officials were considering for the initiative process. He wouldn’t say. He wouldn’t give the slightest hint. Just a guess, but there has been some casual talk in the past about an effort to insert into Mississippi’s Constitution an amendment that would mandate the full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program every year. MAEP is the formula that determines how much state funding each school district gets every fiscal year.

Full funding of education, mental health services and Medicaid will be top priorities for Democrats come budget time. Moak said as much Monday. “We should take care of the basic needs and we can fight over everything else.”

It’s a possibility if Democrats lose that fight at the Capitol, they’ll at least try to win it with an initiative or two.

Official: Automotive support manufacturers looking at Starkville

February 14th, 2012 No comments

Oktibbeha County Economic Development Authority President Jon Maynard said at a meeting of that organization Monday that two manufacturers with ties to the automotive industry have started kicking the tires on possible sites in the Starkville area.

According to a story on the Starkville Daily News‘ website, Maynard declined to name the companies, citing confidentiality agreements. Starkville is almost exactly halfway between Canton and Blue Springs, and would make a good geographical match for a company that wanted to do business with Nissan and Toyota. Four-lane highways connect the three cities, so this will certainly be something to keep an eye on.

Maynard also updated the progress on a few other projects that have been simmering for a while in Starkville, including the mixed-use CottonMill Marketplace. The SDN has it covered here.

Holland: ‘Gulf of America’ bill filed to protest GOP agenda

February 9th, 2012 2 comments

One of Twitter’s worldwide trending topics Thursday afternoon was the Gulf of America.

That’s because Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has filed a bill that would basically rename the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of America.

Holland apparently is not talking to national media. He did give me about five minutes, though.

“It’s right in line with all the other bullsh** going on now in the Legislature,” Holland said. “And you can quote me on that in capital letters if you want to. Cutting education, cutting healthcare, going after immigrants, all the things the Rebublican majority seems interested in, that don’t do anything to enhance the quality of life and the economic foundation of the average Mississippian. It’s a spamelot bill. I thought it made about as much sense as some of the other stuff coming through here. We’ll see what happens.”

The bill has been referred to the Marine Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Casey Eure, R-Biloxi. The bill will almost certainly die there.

The Gulf of America name, though, will probably stick for a while. I hope it does.

Beer law reform picks up powerful GOP bill author

February 8th, 2012 No comments

In this week’s MBJ I had a story about the beer legislation that has tried and failed the past few legislative sessions. You can read all about it here  (subscriber link).

Bills that would raise the state’s alcohol-by-weight content from 5 percent (lowest in the U.S.) to 8 percent have died in committee at least the last two sessions, as have bills that would allow the state’s only brewery to offer samples of its product to those taking tours of its facility. Bills that would have legalized homebrewing and allowed a brewery to brew illegal beer as long as it’s shipped and sold out of state have also perished. (It’s worth noting that the fact homebrewing is illegal has done nothing to stunt its popularity here).

After my deadline last week, though, came a bill in the Senate authored by Senate President Pro-Tem Terry Brown, R-Columbus, that would legalize homebrewing. Like Rep. Jessica Upshaw, R-Diamondhead, who has introduced beer legislation in the House, Brown’s filing a similar bill is significant.

Because while the bills have enjoyed a modicum of bipartisan support in the past, I can’t remember the GOP jumping on the bill-filing train before now. They may have; I just haven’t confirmed as much. Democrats have traditionally filed and supported the bills the loudest. The committees the bills died in were split among which party controlled them. The GOP now controls the House committee (Ways and Means) and the Senate committee (Finance) in which these bills currently sit.

And that was the gist of this week’s story: Longtime supporters of the beer agenda are more optimistic the legislation’s chances of passage are greater this time, if only because it’s likely lawmakers won’t have to face re-election in November. They may have to if the redistricting process gets squirrely, but it’s unlikely. Election-year politics killed the bills before they were even filed last year.

While it would legalize homebrewing, Brown’s bill does have some limits on the amount one household can brew per year: If there’s only one person over the age of 21 years residing in a single household, that house can brew no more than 100 gallons of beer annually. If there are two or more folks over 21 in one house, that limit rises to 200 gallons per year. The bill would outlaw homebrew being sold, but it would allow it to be exhibited at competitions, tastings, county fairs, etc.

Behind Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Brown is the Senate’s second-most powerful member. So it’s not insignificant that he’s filed this legislation. Upshaw and other Republican supporters of the beer bills have made it into an economic issue by tying it to tourism. How beer legislation in both chambers is handled in committee will be interesting.

MSU: Consumer confidence jumps 10 percent in 4Q of 2011

February 7th, 2012 No comments

From the third quarter to the fourth quarter of 2011, Mississippians’ consumer confidence jumped 10 percent.

That’s what jumped out of the latest edition of “Economy Watch,” a survey published by Mississippi State’s College of Business. The college conducted, it says, more than 500 phone surveys to arrive at its conclusion.

The findings echo what state economist Dr. Darrin Webb told lawmakers recently: that the state’s economy improved the last quarter of 2011, but the overall pace of recovery would likely slow to a crawl this year. Getting back to pre-recession levels of employment is going to take another few years, Webb said.

The Mississippi Index of Consumer Sentiment, “Economy Watch” tell us, is made up of two factors: how folks feel about current economic conditions and how they think future conditions will go. The reading at the end of 2011, 89.2, is the highest since 2007. The college considers a MICS reading of 90 to be the benchmark of a healthy economy.

To see the entire survey results, click here.

Bradley Arant to host UT professor for entrepreneurial seminar

February 1st, 2012 1 comment

A faculty member of the University of Texas’ MBA program who has started or financed more than 40 companies will hold a two-day entrepreneur accelerator seminar next week at Jackson lawfirm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings.

Rob Adams, author of two books, will be in Jackson Feb. 9 and 10. Cost to attend the event is $195 for both days, and will only cover Adams’ fee, according to an email from David Pharr, a partner at BABC.  Adams will explore topics related to getting a venture-backed company off the ground — including unit economics, customer acquisition costs, developing a profitable product or service and the common failures of start-ups.

For questions or to RSVP, email or call Wendy Mullins at 601-592-9937. Seats are limited. For complete details, click on the image.