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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.

Bryant starts his new job reinforcing familiar themes

January 10th, 2012 No comments

Other than anecdotes about his family, there wasn’t much new in Gov. Phil Bryant’s inaugural address.

Like he has for most of the past four years, Bryant used his platform to talk economic issues: job-creation, education, the high cost of teenage pregnancy and his political pet project, performance-based budgeting.

The energy and healthcare industries, Bryant said, are two areas ripe for growth over the next decade-plus. The extraction and processing of natural gas, biofuels and clean coal can – and according to Bryant, will – help the state in its revolution from low-wage industrial haven to modern manufacturing empire.

Offering incentives for the healthcare industry, and bringing 1,000 new physicians to Mississippi by 2025, can turn the state’s metro areas and their medical corridors into burgeoning centers of medical power, Bryant said.

Having a stable of workers to fill those jobs will require a shift in thinking when it comes to public education, he said. Solutions don’t begin and end with funding, but will take redesigning curriculums to better serve students not on a college track, but headed for vocational employment, and a clearer path for charter schools to establish.

“When a Mississippian has a job, it changes absolutely everything,” Bryant said.

Bryant saved his strongest words for the state’s high teenage pregnancy rate, which has become as much of a Mississippi hallmark as the state’s musical and literary heritage.

“It must come to an end,” he said, adding that churches and other religious organizations have to partner with public institutions in reaching that end. “We can no longer turn our heads and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.”

Bryant compared the cultural change that would have to happen to do that to the one that has managed to eradicate smoking in nearly every public building and gathering spot in Mississippi, including the Capitol. He noted that a lot of folks 40 years ago would have filled the place with cigarette and cigar smoke during his address.

Obviously, Bryant’s plans will be met with a great deal of resistance in the Capitol, some from within his own party, but mostly from Democrats, who just watched their long-held power and influence all but evaporate.

Bryant’s Smart Budget Act, which bases agency funding on results achieved, is wildly popular with fiscal conservatives, but not with many agency heads, who cite the difficulty in tracking those results, not to mention the ease with which those results can be manipulated.

With a Republican-led Legislature, though, its passage is likely, if not guaranteed. The same goes for Bryant’s education reforms, though it’s worth noting the funding fight is likely to be as spirited as it’s ever been.

The wild card in that notion will be just how badly new legislative leadership – Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves – want to return Mississippi’s government to one in which lawmakers hold the majority of power.

Either way, the game is afoot.

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.

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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:

Moran opposes all three ballot initiatives

October 24th, 2011 No comments

Ocean Springs mayor and Democratic candidate for state treasurer Connie Moran was the speaker at Monday’s Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon.

Moran’s presentation and the Q&A that followed was among the shortest I can remember at the monthly Stennis meetings, so let’s just hit some highlights.

Moran said she would vote no on all three of the ballot initiatives that will appear on next month’s ballot. She said Alabama’s putting together 30 parcels of land in two weeks for its Mercedez-Benz plant is proof that the ability to use eminent domain for private enterprise is the “number one tool” for landing mega projects. Mississippi was considered for the plant.

“Was that worth it? Absolutely,” Moran said of Alabama’s efforts, which included the use of eminent domain. “Would I want to use that to build a golf course? No. But for major investment, yes.”

Moran cited what she called the “unintended consequences” of the Personhood Initiative among her reasons for opposing it. She made it a point to say that she was pro-life, but supported the use of abortion in cases of rape and incest.

As for the Voter ID Initiative, Moran said she was worried it could potentially disenfranchise elderly voters, particularly those who no longer drive and have no need to keep a driver’s license.

Moran also opposes converting the PERS system into a 401 (k)-style format, an idea that has emerged after Gov. Haley Barbour appointed a commission to study the state’s retirement system. She added that the annual cost-of-living adjustment retirees get — commonly called “the 13th check” — should be held harmless in any sort of discussion of PERS reform.

Moran’s opponent, Republican Lynn Fitch, did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

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Hood, Simpson duck major policy issues at Stennis luncheon

October 3rd, 2011 1 comment

Current attorney general Jim Hood and his Republican opponent Steve Simpson both support the personhood amendment.

Things are pretty murky after that.

The two candidates’ feelings about the three initiatives with which they will share a ballot next month were what I really wanted to learn during their appearance at Monday’s monthly meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps.

The legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act and the hiring of outside counsel for state-backed litigation have been the main themes of the campaign — at least Simpson’s — so far. I’ve heard enough about both.

For Simpson, the stickiest ballot initiative is the one that seeks to bar the use of eminent domain for private enterprise. For Hood, it’s the one that would require photo identification at the polls.

After being asked for their stance on each, I still don’t know what it is. Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal tried first. He asked Simpson how he felt about all three initiatives. Simpson was great guns for voter ID and personhood. But what he said about the eminent domain measure is, well, baffling.

“I don’t know how I feel about that,” Simpson told the 100 or so people gathered at the University Club in Jackson. “There are strong advocates for and against it.”  Later, I asked Simpson if he considered job-creation a public use. “I consider it a public opportunity,” he said. So I asked him how he planned to vote on the issue. “I haven’t changed my mind from two minutes ago. I just don’t know,” he said.

After he noted supported for the eminent domain measure, Hood was equally evasive when it came to voter ID. He said if the initiatives passed — and they surely will — that he would defend them against any legal challenge should he be re-elected. Asked which way he would vote on the voter ID measure, Hood exercised his constitutional right not to reveal it. “I”m going to take that with me to the voting booth,” he said.

It’s hard to recall another instance of political hopefuls, at least those I’ve covered, flatly refusing to say which side of an issue they’re on. I know for sure I’ve never heard a candidate at any level say “I don’t know” in reponse to a policy question, nor have I heard one decline to reveal how he will vote on a policy issue.

It’s embarassing, weak and ridiculous.

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Coast candidates have tough hills to climb (literally)

August 3rd, 2011 1 comment

Until graduation from Ole Miss, I lived in North Mississippi. Ackerman, Starkville, Pontotoc and then Oxford.

I still have kin in Ackerman, Starkville and Pontotoc. Even though Jackson is where my house and office are, the hill country is home, and always will be.

With that background, I’ve known for many years that folks in North Mississippi — more specifically, Northeast Mississippi – don’t think much of the Coast, as a general rule. Consequently, they don’t think much of statewide candidates from the Coast. The reasons are varied. The Coast is too much like Louisiana, and Louisiana has New Orleans, so the Coast is like New Orleans, and that makes it bad.

Then there are the casinos, which are a major hang-up for some of my relatives. The Coast has the casinos, they surmise, so candidates from there are in cahoots with the gambling business, and that makes them bad. Never mind that most every elected official from the hill country is pro-casino in one form or another. That’s not the point, and it’s also not the point to poor-mouth folks for having a bias against the Coast. That street runs both ways.

The point is this: No matter how hard they work or how much money they spend, statewide candidates from the Coast do not stand a chance in North Mississippi. Period.

Tuesday’s elections made me believe that more than ever. In the northernmost vote-rich areas, Billy Hewes and Dave Dennis were wiped out at the ballot box.

In the GOP primary for governor, Phil Bryant won DeSoto (80%), Lee (66%) and Lowndes (74%) counties comfortably. Take a look at that DeSoto total again. It’s not a misprint.

The Republican primary for lieutenant governor didn’t go any better for Hewes. Tate Reeves easily won DeSoto (65%), Lee (62%) and Lowndes (65%).

Those numbers held true in the smaller counties, too.

It doesn’t matter if you win other vote-rich GOP counties like Madison and Rankin and Lauderdale, all of which Dennis and Hewes lost. If you get beat that badly in North Mississippi, your campaign is sunk. There’s no other way around it.

It’s not like Hewes and Dennis didn’t spend time and money up north either. I know they did. The first time I interviewed Dennis was more than 18 months ago, and he was on his way back from speaking to (if memory serves) the Tupelo Rotary Club.

Hewes’ and Dennis’ individual campaign itineraries that arrived daily in my inbox on plenty of occasions had Southaven, Tupelo, Columbus, New Albany, Batesville, Ripley, wherever – name a town, it was on there.

I didn’t expect Hewes and Dennis to win any of those counties, because Bryant and Reeves had big advantages in money and name-recognition, but those margins look made-up.

Will there be a Coast candidate on the statewide ballot in 2015?

Can anybody break the Curse of North Mississippi?

The numbers say no.

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Nash, Taggart make their predictions

August 1st, 2011 No comments

Political analysts and authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart offered Monday at the Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon their predictions for how Tuesday’s elections will go. Without delay, here they are:

Taggart, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Kirk Fordice, likes Phil Bryant to win the Republican primary for governor, and to win it handily. “The only surprise that could be left in that race is if Phil is drawn into a runoff with Dave Dennis, and I don’t think that’s likely,” he said.

Taggart made it a point to say he supports Bryant. In the lieutenant governor’s race, Taggart said he was solidly behind Billy Hewes, who he predicted would pull off what would be an upset and beat Tate Reeves. “(Hewes) has come a long way really fast,” Taggart said.

In the down-ballot races, Taggart was less decisive. He said there will almost certainly be a runoff among two of the three GOP candidates for treasurer, the race he said was the hardest to handicap, and that any two of the three — Lee Yancey, Lucien Smith and Lynn Fitch — could make the runoff. Also headed for a runoff, Taggart said, is the agriculture commissioner’s race. Max Phillips and Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Republicans, have run strong ground and media campaigns, but Taggart stopped short of  predicting who would win should a runoff become reality.

Nash made what we thought was the most interesting point regarding the statewide races: In the last two election cycles, 2003 and 2007, the candidate for a statwide office who has spent the most money has won that race. “It will be interesting to see if that holds this year,” Nash said, noting that if it does, Bryant, Reeves and Smith would win.

In their most recent campaign finance filings, Phillips and Hyde-Smith both reported raising nearly identical amounts of money (about $150,000), so that race is a sure-enough toss-up, at least in the financial sense.

Nash spent the majority of his time at the podium on the local legislative races. He concedes that it will require a minor miracle for the Democrats to control the Senate. The fight to control the House — something Republicans have made a priority to pave the way for a GOP Speaker — “will be very, very close,” he said. 

As for the three initiatives — eminent domain, personhood and voter ID — Nash and Taggart agree that they will all pass overwhelmingly, should they survive legal challenges and actually be on the ballot.

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Marcus Dupree endorses Bill Luckett — but what about Ron Williams?

July 14th, 2011 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace has made a habit of not paying much attention to political endorsements. That’s because they rarely mean much of anything. There are exceptions, but not many.

So when Democratic candidate for governor Bill Luckett announced Thursday morning that Marcus Dupree, who a lot of folks think is the best high school football player Mississippi has ever produced, had endorsed the Clarksdale lawyer, it was strange. Why? Because Dupree endorsed GOP candidate Ron Williams back in February. You can view video of Dupree making official his affinity for Williams here.

Dupree worked for Williams’ hazardous material clean-up company after the oil spill, which probably had a lot to do with his original decision to endorse the Moss Point businessman.

We reached Williams on his cell phone, and he said he had been made aware of Dupree’s switch this morning.

“Marcus is a good guy,” Williams said. “It is what it is.” Williams added that he was under the impression that Dupree was trying to get Morgan Freeman,who’s been a big part of Luckett’s campaign, to back a movie about Dupree’s life, which would explain the flip.

Williams didn’t seem overly bothered by Dupree’s decision, probably because of what we mentioned earlier — these things rarely pack any real voting punch. “But I’m starting to understand why Jackson is so messed up,” he said of the weird things politics can make otherwise reasonable people do.

 And this is among the weirdest we’ve seen in a while.

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