Archive for January, 2013

Miss. Supreme Court to hear Kemper arguments Jan. 28

January 21st, 2013 No comments

The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear oral argument Jan. 28 related to the Sierra Club’s ongoing legal opposition to Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County coal plant.

The hearing, which will start at 1:30, will center on this question: Why should the (MSSC) not reverse the Public Service Commission for its failure to hold the rate case in abeyance until the case of Sierra Club v. Mississippi Public Service Commission currently on appeal in Harrison County Chancery Court is finally decided?

Attorneys for MPC will have six minutes at the beginning to respond to the question. Attorneys for the PSC will have six minutes to do the same immediately afterward.

Attorneys for Thomas Blanton, a Hattiesburg resident who has challenged the constitutionality of the Baseload Act, will then have 20 minutes to make their case against the 2008 legislation that authorized utility companies to pass construction costs on to ratepayers before the generation facilities they were building were operational.

The hearing will conclude with MPC and PSC splitting 20 minutes to respond to Blanton.

The Sierra Club has fought the coal plant from its inception, calling it an expensive and unnecessary environmental hazard. Mississippi Power has said it’s the best way to ensure long-term availability of economical power for its nearly 200,000 ratepayers.

Monitors: Kemper project cost could come in under cap

January 18th, 2013 5 comments

The latest report from the independent monitors the Mississippi Public Service Commission hired to evaluate the Kemper county coal plant shows the project may come in under the $2.88 billion cap.

In its December report, filed with commissioners in early January, URS says Mississippi Power estimates the plant will cost $2.84 billion to build, about $44 million less than the cap the PSC imposed on the project. The filing says the plant is between 70 and 75 percent complete, and that it will, according to MPC, begin commercial operation in May 2014, the original target date.

That lines up with URS’ November report, which estimated there was a 72 percent chance the project would cost $2.88 billion or less.

In its December filing, URS does express concern about different pieces of the construction having to be reworked, due to noncompliance by contractors or design flaws. Monitors also said it was possible the conversion to union labor could increase costs. Union leadership told the Mississippi Business Journal late last year that there would be no significant increase in construction costs due to union workers being hired. The Central Mississippi Building and Construction Trades Council and the Mississippi chapter of the AFL-CIO struck a deal with Southern Co., MPC’s parent, to provide workers for the project.

The cost and timeline estimates in URS’ latest report are different than what was included in the last report filed by monitors hired by the PSC’s Public Utilities Staff. Burns and Roe said in its Nov. 26 filing that there was a 90 percent chance the coal plant’s cost would fall somewhere between $3 billion and $3.15 billion, which has been its estimate for several months. Burns and Roe added that there was an 80 percent chance the plant would begin operation on or before Dec. 20, 2014; a 50 percent chance it starts on or before Nov. 29, 2014; and a 20 percent chance the same happens by Nov. 6, 2014.

Mississippi Power spokesperson Jeff Shepard told the MBJ late last year that the company anticipates the plant’s cost coming in at $2.88 billion or under, and that it will start producing electricity on a commercial scale in May 2014.

The Kemper facility is still the subject of litigation between Mississippi Power and the Sierra Club, which opposes the project. A Harrison County chancery judge ruled for the project late last year, after the Sierra Club had challenged the validity of the second certificate commissioners had issued it. Lawyers for the environmental advocacy group have already appealed that decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Commissioners ruled over the summer that they would not entertain any rate increase requests related to the project until the state’s high court had its say on the matter. That decision came after Mississippi Power had asked for a 13 percent rate increase that would have generated about $58 million.

Initiative seeks to aid veterans in finding jobs

January 16th, 2013 No comments

Gov. Phil Bryant proclaimed on Wednesday that 2013 was the year Mississippi employers should do everything they can to hire veterans.

As part of the announcement at the Capitol, Bryant and officials from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security said they would back legislation that seeks to make it easier for veterans and their spouses to get jobs.

The bill, which will be filed by Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven, would require state agencies to grant temporary occupational licenses to qualified veterans and their spouses. For example, if someone is transferred to Naval Air Station Meridian, and their spouse is a nurse licensed in another state, the bill would expedite the process of getting a license to practice nursing in Mississippi.

It would also expedite the licensing process for veterans whose civilian career will mirror their jobs in the military.

The initiative will include three job fairs, the first of which is in March at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson.

MDES executive director Mark Henry said Mississippi will have in the next five years 28,000 veterans who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. The unemployment rate for veterans in the state, Henry said, is 10.8 percent, higher than the 7.8 percent overall rate.

On Wednesday, representatives from Ingalls Shipbuilding, Entergy Mississippi and Brown Bottling signed a pledge to hire Mississippi veterans. A similar movement is going on nationally, led by Walmart’s promise this week to hire 100,000 veterans in the next five years.

The job fairs associated with the Mississippi initiative are March 8 at the Ag Museum, April 9 at the Biloxi Civic Center and June 27 at Itawamba Community College’s Belden Center in Belden.

Video of Wednesday’s press conference, courtesy of the MBJ‘s Stephen McDill, is here.

Council eases path to operation for Hattiesburg breweries

January 14th, 2013 No comments

The Hattiesburg City Council removed late last week one of the last major hurdles two breweries had to clear before they could get their product on shelves.

The council altered the city’s land use code to allow breweries in Hattiesburg’s downtown district. The old code would have allowed breweries, but would have also mandated they provide things such as parking areas similar in size to other downtown retailers.

John Neal, owner of Southern Prohibition Brewery, said the altered land code “just makes thing a lot easier on us.”

“Now we don’t have to have a whole bunch of parking that would be expensive to build and that we just wouldn’t have needed,” he said Monday morning. “We’ll have people come and tour the brewery, but nothing that would have justified having 50 parking spaces.”

Neal said he hopes to have Southern Prohibition beer on retail shelves by April. His 20-barrel brewery will sit in a renovated furniture warehouse. Gordon Creek Brewery, which will be right down the street from Southern Prohibition, is scheduled to start brewing next month, according to the Hattiesburg American newspaper.

Neal, who also owns craft beer bar the Keg and Barrel, said his operation will be a little different from the handful of breweries that have sprang up since July 1, when state law changed to allow the maximum alcohol content in beer made and sold in Mississippi to rise from 5 percent by volume to 8 percent by volume.

“We’re going to can our beers, which is kind of a new thing for the craft beer industry,” Neal said. “It protects the beer from light, gets it colder, and is generally just easier for the consumer to handle.”

Neal said business at Keg and Barrel is up 30 percent since July 1. He’s added 45 parking spaces and built an outdoor bar since then, he said. “I fought hard for the ABV law, but I had no idea it would have this dramatic of an effect on not just us, but everybody connected to craft beer.”

Fitch: Audit finds problems with MPACT’s pricing structure

January 11th, 2013 No comments

The firm state Treasurer Lynn Fitch hired to audit the Mississippi Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Program, or MPACT, identified 12 areas of concern, nine of which were related to the program’s pricing structure.

Fitch announced last fall that was suspending the state-backed college savings program, due to concerns she had over its financial condition. She hired Michigan-based Gabriel Roeder Smith and Co. shortly thereafter to audit it.

Fitch released the results, which she said made up Phase I, Friday morning, to go with her legislative agenda.

The first-term treasurer said GRS & Co. found the plan had a 43 percent of chance of reaching its 7.8 percent target rate or return. For fiscal year 2012, the rate of return was 1.10 percent. The estimated rate for fiscal year 2013, according to Fitch, is 4.98 percent. The plan, which has 22,000 enrollees and $274 million in trust, is currently is 76 percent funded. The last time it was 100 percent funded was 2000.

Auditors said that lowering the plan’s expected rate of return would drop the funding level into the low 70s, and increase the plan’s unfunded liability to more than $100 million.

Some of the preliminary recommendations auditors made were:

  • Incorporate bias load into the pricing structure. For example, some participants pay a price based on average annual tuition at one institution, then attend an institution whose tuition is markedly higher, leaving a difference between what the participant paid in and what they received.
  • Changing the way administrative expenses are paid in the pricing. Currently, administrative fees are captured by lowering the plan’s interest rate, which has contributed heavily, Fitch and auditors said, to its low rate of return.
  • Allowing the plan to recover losses when the average price of tuition rises. Currently, there is no way to do that when tuition increases are higher than assumed over periods that are hover close to the participation period.

Fitch said the next phase of the audit would be completed within 90-120 days. “This will not be a quick turn. It will take some patience.” She said those already participating in the plan would receive their designated benefits.

Ten states have already permanently closed similar programs, something Fitch said “would be an option” for MPACT. “This is the fault of no one, “she said. “It’s strictly an economic issue.”

The highlight of Fitch’s legislative agenda was the implementation of a statewide financial literacy program, which would require high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to take a one-semester course that taught the particulars of using credit, budgeting, managing money and making wise financial decisions. The cost in the first year of the program, Fitch said, would be about $5 million. That would likely decrease over time, she said.

Gulf of America legislation will not return, Holland says

January 9th, 2013 No comments

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, filed during the 2012 legislative session a bill that would have renamed the Gulf of Mexico the Gulf of America.

Holland said then that he did it to highlight what he felt was the absurdity of the agenda being pushed by the new Republican majority.

Holland took no small amount of flak for the bill, which died in the Universities and Colleges Committee. The GOP accused him of failing to concentrate on serious issues. Whatever the reason Holland had for filing the legislation, its idea became a popular notion. Gulf of America twitter accounts appeared. Holland was a guest on a Houston, Texas, radio show, though it was a short and fairly tense interview that ended when Holland hung up on the host.

The movement that sprang up around the bill will not return this session. Holland said Wednesday morning that he will not re-file the bill.

“The stupid people up here totally misunderstood it,” he said in a phone interview.

Holland said his 2013 legislative agenda would be narrowly focused, and consist of “three or four local bills” geared toward his district in Northeast Mississippi. That’s a sharp contrast to prior sessions, when his list of bills has been robust.

“I’ve been down here for 30 years fighting for things that actually mean something for Mississippians,” Holland said. “Now the only thing that gets any attention is mediocre (expletive).”

Reeves: Bond bill has to meet long-term needs, and MDA fund limit needs lowering

January 7th, 2013 No comments

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will support a bond bill that addresses long-term capital needs, charter schools should be allowed to locate wherever parents want them, and the Mississippi Development Authority needs more legislative supervision over how it spends money out of its revolving loan fund.

Reeves touched on those topics and a few others Monday during the Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon in Jackson.

The Republican has taken criticism, including from some in his party, since the last legislation session ended without the passage of a bond bill, the first time that’s happened in as long as a lot of legislative veterans can remember.

The first-term lieutenant governor repeated Monday what he’s said for a couple months: He can get behind a bond package “reasonable and rational in size” that pays for long-term capital needs instead of things that should be funded through the normal appropriations process. He listed local system bridge programs, and repairs and HVAC systems for state buildings as things that have historically been bonded, and that are a big reason why the state pays $430 million annually in debt service.

“If it does not meet those criteria, I cannot support” a bond bill, Reeves said.

Reeves also reiterated his support for charter schools in every district where enough parents want to form one. Who can trigger the charter law was a sticking point in last year’s session, with splits forming among those who held views similar to Reeves’, and those who wanted charter schools only in districts rated as unsuccessful or failing.

There will be another bill this session aimed at lowering the ceiling for which the MDA can spend out of its revolving loan fund without legislative approval. Currently, the MDA can spend up to $468 million before having to ask lawmakers’ permission. The fund is used to help economic development prospects with costs related to coming to Mississippi.

Last year, a bill passed the Senate that would have lowered the limit from $468 million to $50 million. It died in the House Ways and Means Committee when chairman Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, did not bring it up for a vote.

“I do not believe the Mississippi Development Authority ought to have $468 million to spend on whatever project they want to spend it on,” Reeve said.

Reeves affirmed his opposition to the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, and said there would be no “serious, significant discussion” about it until the federal government clarifies certain rules. Particularly, Reeves said, states who opt out of the Medicaid expansion need to know if disproportionate share payments – made to hospitals that write off the cost of large amounts of treatment to indigent patients – will remain or be eliminated.

The 2013 session gavels to a start Tuesday at noon.

Silicor eyeing sites other than Lowndes County for facility

January 7th, 2013 1 comment

Silicor Materials, which used to be Calisolar, said in a press release Monday morning that it still wants to build a facility in Mississippi.

It won’t be in Lowndes County, though. The company missed a Dec. 31 deadline to put $150,000 into escrow that would have kept it eligible for tax incentives Lowndes County had approved for the plant to produce silicon for use in solar panels.

In a special session in September 2011, lawmakers approved a $75 million incentive package for the company, known then as Calisolar, including $59.5 million for construction of the facility and equipment to put in it, $11 million for infrastructure and $4.5 million for workforce training. Lowndes County also pledged $19 million. None of that money has actually been spent, though, because it was contingent upon Silicor breaking ground on its facility and reaching other milestones afterward. The company never reached those milestones because it was unable to secure financing for the project.

Lowndes County supervisor Harry Sanders told the Mississippi Business Journal last month the county had done infrastructure upgrades to the site, but that work had been planned before Silicor made it known it was interested in it.

The project would have represented a $200 million investment by Silicor, which planned to employ almost 1,000 people at the facility once it opened.

Silicor CEO Terry Jester said that the company would look around Mississippi for a site. “We are committed to building our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Mississippi, and we look forward to increasing economic opportunity in the state,” he said in a statement. Silicor said a site other than Lowndes County would “allow us to maximize our company’s mission,” adding that potential investors have already visited the state.

The company would likely need from whatever county it selects help similar to what Lowndes County promised.

Officials in that chosen county will probably share Lowndes County’s wariness of the company’s inability to secure private financing, and will likely attach the same conditions to any kind of incentives.

Silicor does still have a friend in the Mississippi Senate, though.

“Silicor Materials, its executive chairman, John Correnti, and many others, have been working tirelessly to create jobs here in Mississippi – these projects take time, especially in these challenging economic times,” Senate Pro Tem Terry Brown, a Republican whose district includes the Lowndes County Silicor site, said in the company’s press release. “Mr. Correnti has been a champion of jobs and economic development in Mississippi, having led the successful effort to bring hundreds of high-paying jobs to our state, and we fully support him and his colleagues in doing it again.”

Categories: Calisolar, Silicor Materials Tags:

Toyota’s 2012 sales up 26 percent over 2011

January 3rd, 2013 No comments

Toyota sold about 418,000 more vehicles in 2012 than it did in 2011.

The numbers came from Toyota’s year-end sales figures, which the company released Thursday afternoon. Total units sold for 2012 were 2,082,504, up from 1,644,661 in 2011. That represented an increase of 26.6 percent.

Sales across all auto companies were 14.5 million, the highest since 2007.

Sales of the Corolla, which is built in Blue Springs, were also up 21.1 percent this year over last. The Corolla was the compamy’s second most popular model as far as total units sold, behind the Camry. Sales of vehicles made in North America were up 28.4 percent. Selling days for each year were the same, at 307.

Click the link below for the entire chart.

Toyota 2012 sales

Categories: News, Toyota Tags:

Tax breaks in fiscal cliff bill could help Mississippi film industry — sort of

January 3rd, 2013 No comments

The details of the American Tax Relief Act of 2012 are starting to surface, and they share a theme.

A lot of the fine print consists of tax breaks of some shape or form for virtually every existing industry. (The Wall Street Journal has a good rundown of what it calls a “crony capitalist blowout” here.)

One of them is an extension of a tax break given to Hollywood studios that allows for the expensing of the first $15 million of production costs incurred in making a movie. If those production costs are incurred in an economically depressed area, that expensing credit rises to $20 million.

That’s significant for Mississippi, especially for Canton, which is the site of a new film studio built specifically to attract film crews. The 36,000 square foot soundstage sits on 31 acres, and was built within the past couple years. James Franco is currently shooting a screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” there.

On top of the breaks in the Tax Relief Act, Mississippi offers a 25 percent cash rebate, even if film crews are stocked with non-local labor. If film crews have at least some local workers, that rebate jumps to 30 percent.

Production sets outside Hollywood are rarely filled with workers who are not a member of the various unions, though. In Mississippi, a right-to-work state where unions have had little success gaining traction, that possibility is even less likely. Restaurants and hotels will benefit from the arrival of film crews, but there won’t be an explosion of film jobs for Mississippians, unless they move to Hollywood and join a union.