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Political battle lines forming over jobs bill

August 11th, 2010 3 comments

It didn’t take long for Gov. Haley Barbour to express his displeasure over the $26 billion state-aid legislation President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.

In a press release his office issued Aug. 9, Barbour said the bill would force Mississippi’s budget into a re-write in order for the state to accept the $98 million for public education and $130 million for Medicaid.

The state’s budget for fiscal year 2011 has been set since June. Proponents of the bill claim it will rehire laid off teachers or keep those teetering on the edge of unemployment in the classroom. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, and Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, voted for it. Gene Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, and Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, voted against it. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker both voted against it.

“There is no justification for the federal government hijacking state budgets, but that is exactly what Congress has done,” Barbour said in his statement.

So does that mean Barbour will call lawmakers back to Jackson to reconfigure the budget?

Not necessarily, said Barbour spokesman Dan Turner. The state has the option to decline the education money, or show a “maintenance of effort” to work it into the budget without having to redo the whole thing.

Which is the best option?

“Too soon to say,” Turner said.

The notion of whether to accept one-time federal money for a specific state expense got a lot of political run about a year and a half ago, when the original stimulus bill included for Mississippi $56 million for extended unemployment benefits. Barbour and several other Republican governors refused to take it. Democrats wailed. It’s likely a similar scenario will play out this time around.

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Special session on the near horizon?

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace got a tip a few minutes ago that there was the possibility of a special legislative session Aug. 13, in which lawmakers will take up incentives for an economic development project.

Phone calls to a few folks who usually know about these things yielded a recurring theme:

No, they all agreed, they had not heard about the specific date for the special session. They had, however, had cross their radar the possibility of something going on in Meridian. In three different phone calls, Meridian came up unprompted all three times.

It makes sense. Toward the end of the 2010 regular session, a bill that would have offered state incentives to a wood products facility in Meridian died. At the time, a couple of people connected to the project said it wasn’t quite ready to take the last step to the altar of economic development. Maybe it is now. Or maybe it’s something else really cool that nobody (other than perhaps Gov. Haley Barbour) knows about yet.

Dan Turner, Barbour’s spokesman, did not immediately return a call to his cell phone. We’ll post what he says as soon as he does.

UPDATE: After checking around, one of the sources we spoke to about an hour ago just called back to say that the Aug. 13 rumor “seems to be true.” There still is no definitive word on whether Meridian is the target. But the Aug. 13 date is looking, for now, like a solid bet.

SECOND UPDATE: Another source we talked to earlier today has been doing some checking since we last spoke, and offers this: “Unless I’m badly wrong, it’s not Meridian.” So that’s the latest. Still no word from Turner, though if/when he calls back, we’ll share what he says. Stay tuned.

Barbour and Mabus discuss the oil spill

June 30th, 2010 2 comments

Current Gov. Haley Barbour and former Gov. Ray Mabus, who’s now the Secretary of the Navy/Gulf Clean-up Czar, appeared together at a press conference this morning, and three themes kept recurring:

1. BP is responsible for funding the plan to restore the Gulf Coast to its pre-spill condition.

2. The plan will be formulated by Coast stakeholders and not the federal government.

3. Right now, there is no plan.

“I don’t have the answers now,” Mabus said. “I shouldn’t have the answers now.”

In an effort to perhaps glean some answers, Mabus has spent the past several days in Louisiana and is headed today to Mississippi and Alabama before traveling to Florida.

He will meet with government officials, business owners, residents, basically everybody who’s been affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster that just started its 11th week.

Barbour made the point a couple of weeks ago that those most affected by the spill should develop an environmental and economic recovery plan, while the federal government merely implemented it, instead of the other way around. Mabus said today he was on board with that concept.

“It’s really important this be a bottom-up process and not vice versa. I understand people are worried, they’re scared, they’re mad about what’s happened, and they have every right to be.”

A good portion of the anger has been directed toward BP since oil started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico April 21. The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward, hasn’t helped the situation with some of his comments.

Magnolia Marketplace asked Mabus how he would rate BP’s handling of the situation. He paused for about five seconds and said, “I think I’m going to rate my boss’ response to this. I think the president’s done a great job and has moved aggresively on this. I’m not in a position to rate (BP).”

Barbour had his own rating for the immediate efforts to remove at least some of the oil from Mississippi waters. In short, the state needs more skimming vessels than it has now, Barbour said, in what he called “a better execution” of the overall approach. “We had a significant amount of oil in Harrison County yesterday,” Barbour added, to go with the oil that washed up on the beaches of Jackson County earlier this week.

Barbour said more skimmers should arrive soon, now that an agreement has been struck with Sweden and a handful of other countries to provide assistance. About 4,000 people are working now to divert the oil from the state’s beaches and clean it up if and when it gets there.

Mabus flew over the spill yesterday.

“The scope of this thing is huge,” he said. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced, and not just a little bigger. It’s magnitudes bigger.”

Feinberg meets the Mississippi press

June 18th, 2010 12 comments

Ken Feinberg, who will oversee the process devoted to paying oil spill-related claims, was in Jackson visiting with Gov. Haley Barbour this morning and held about a 30-minute Q&A with assembled media.

Before we get into what was said, let’s talk a little about Feinberg. He’s an interesting character. He administered the fund created by the federal government to pay victims of 9/11. He did the same with a private fund set up to reimburse victims and relatives of victims of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

The Wall Street Journal has dubbed  him “The Special Master of America.”

The first thing I noticed about Feinberg when he took the podium today was how enthusiastic he seemed, and how his voice boomed. I kept trying to come up with a good way to describe him to somebody who had never seen him, and the best I could do was this: He’s Houston Nutt with a thick Boston accent.

Anyway, Feinberg will set up an independent claims facility he says will be independent of the White House and BP. BP is funding the cost to run the program, whose budget, Feinberg says, is virtually unlimited.

The goal is to reimburse any legitimate loss related to the spill — business interruption, wage loss, personal injury, even death claims, to name a few. BP will pay those claims, Feinberg and Barbour emphasized repeatedly.

That’s about all we’re certain of right now. What separates a legitimate claim from one that’s not is something Feinberg says he has yet to establish guidelines for.

He did say that he would rely heavily on Mississippi law for answers. For instance, if somebody files a claim whose legitimacy is less than clear, Feinberg would turn to Mississippi law to determine if the claim, if it were filed as a lawsuit, would be eligible for settlement or reward money arising from litigation.

“We’ll be looking at, if you go to court in Mississippi, where does the law cut (settlement or reward eligibility) off?,” Feinberg said.

Speaking of lawsuits, Feinberg said that if somebody files a claim, there is a strong possibility part of the terms of the claim being paid will include the claimant waiving his/her right to sue BP afterward, especially if the claimant receives a lump sum payment.

“That’s the way I see it,” Feinberg said.

BP has established an escrow fund that will, starting this year, receive annual payments of $5 billion until it reaches $20 billion, to pay spill claims.

“We’re entitled to recover all of the losses (from BP), even administrative costs,” Barbour said. Barbour had raised a few questions about the escrow earlier this week. He said he was worried pumping $20 billion into a fund immediately would rob BP of the working capital it needed to continue to make money so it could pay spill claims. He was satisfied with the annual installment plan.

Feinberg and Barbour both seemed comfortable that $20 billion would be enough to cover the damage done by the spill. Feinberg added that bankruptcy for BP “is not an option.”

Remnants of oil reach shores of Petit Bois Island

June 1st, 2010 No comments

Like we mentioned in our previous blog post, it was very unlikely that Gov. Haley Barbour had any good news to share in his press conference updating the latest with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And while it’s not the worst news possible, it’s sobering: A yard-wide, two-mile long patch of residue that broke off the main oil slick reached the southern shore of Petit Bois Island early this morning. Petit Bois is the easternmost of Mississippi’s Barrier Islands.

The residue, which has been in the Gulf so long it’s lost most of the properties that at one time made it oil, is not considered toxic. It will take about 24 hours to clean it up.

But it’s still a major cause for concern.

“This is the first significant amount of oil residue, but certainly won’t be the last,” Barbour said.

In response to the find, Barbour said readiness efforts south of the Barrier Islands will be intensified, including adding more ships to the fleet that is searching for sub-surface oil and oil residue. To date, most of the reconnaissance efforts have been done by airplanes.

Barbour did say there is no evidence that any oil or any kind of residue has made its way between the passes in the Barrier Islands, which is good news because that would mean it would have a clean shot at Mississippi beaches.

“There’s no reason to panic  yet, but there is a likelihood that more intrusion is coming to the Barrier Islands,” Barbour said. “If that happens enough, some will make it through the passes in the islands.”

Barbour said it’s way too early to tell what effect the spill will have on the Coast, because it’s uncertain whether BP’s latest attempt to plug it will be successful.

He then spent a good chunk of time complaining about some of the coverage the spill has gotten from the national media, which Barbour said made it sound like “the Mississippi Coast is ankle deep in oil. If tourists were there today, they wouldn’t know anything was happening. We are ready to fight this fight. But we are certainly concerned about what could happen.”

Barbour to update oil spill today at 3

June 1st, 2010 No comments

Gov. Haley Barbour’s office just issued a press release announcing that he will provide the media with the latest involving the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The timing is important. The past few days have seen yet another attempt by BP to plug the spewing well fail, and the news that a new attempt using another method will be made this week.

So it’s not likely the news from Barbour’s presser will be very good. But we’ll be there with eyes and ears open, and we’ll let you know what happened as soon as it’s over.

GreenTech news leads off the week

May 24th, 2010 2 comments

Since Charles Wang announced plans last fall to build a hybrid vehicle manufacturing facility in Tunica County, not much has happened, and even less has been heard.

The state’s economic development officials, from the county level all the way up to Gov. Haley Barbour, repeat variations of a theme whenever they’re asked about GreenTech, Wang’s company: The state is waiting for the company to raise capital. Until then, there’s just not much to talk about.

Well, now there is something to talk about, and I’m going to be taking a look at it for a story in next week’s MBJ.

GreenTech has acquired EuAuto, a Hong-Kong based company that designs and builds what are called “NEVs,” or neighborhood electric vehicles. Check out the small story we had about it on our website here.

In a statement, GreenTech Chairman Terry McAuliffe, former head of the Democratic National Committee and failed candidate for governor of Virginia, mentions Mississippi — but not Tunica specifically — as one of GreenTech’s target areas for green job creation. But McAuliffe doesn’t provide any insight into how this acquisition will affect the plans for Tunica. He also doesn’t explain what exactly a NEV, which sounds an awful lot like a golf cart, is. We’ll try to find out answers to those questions and more.

Familiar name among GreenTech leadership

April 22nd, 2010 No comments

In this week’s edition of the MBJ, we took a look at the latest with GreenTech Automotive, the hybrid vehicle company that supposedly wants to build a $1 billion manufacturing facility in Tunica.

Long story short, not much has happened in the six months since Charles Wang, GreenTech’s founder and CEO, held a bizarre groundbreaking that wasn’t really a groundbreaking. The party line from the Mississippi Development Authority and Gov. Haley Barbour then was the state would sit back and wait for GreenTech to raise capital. That’s still the same.

What is new, however, and didn’t really fit into the print story, was an addition to GreenTech’s leadership team.

Terry McAuliffe, whose time as head of the Democratic National Committee was marked by record fundraising, has taken over role of chairman for the company. Since at least a portion of the capital needed to get the project moving will come from the EB-5 investment program, which offers Visas to foreigners who invest a minimum of $500,000 in U.S. economic development projects, GreenTech will need someone who can separate investors from their money. McAuliffe has shown remarkable skill at just that.

When he chaired the DNC from 2001-2005, McAuliffe led an effort that pulled in over half a billion dollars and hauled the DNC out of debt for the first time in its history. He went on to manage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008 and made an unsuccessful bid for governor of Virginia last year.

Barbour, who will tell anybody willing to listen that his first priority is job creation, clearly  has to be intrigued by GreenTech, though he won’t say anything beyond the standard wait-and-see response he’s given since last fall. Barbour sees the energy sector as one that holds a lot of promise for Mississippi.

So it’s interesting that one of Barbour’s long-time political adversaries is playing a major part in what would be a major energy project for the state.

“Terry’s an old friend of mine,” Barbour said recently when we asked him about McAuliffe’s affiliation. “Our politics are different, but I’m grateful he’s involved. I hope they’ll be able to put together their financing.”

GreenTech has been surrounded by a pile of skepticism (and rightfully so) since news of the company broke last fall. A lot of smart automotive folks think the project is a pipe dream; honestly, it probably is. But McAuliffe has a solid fundraising track record. Still, he needs to pull a lot of money-covered rabbits out of a lot of hats.

Barbour modifies his budget recommendation

April 14th, 2010 11 comments

Just under a week before lawmakers resume the 2010 session, Gov. Haley Barbour has adjusted his executive budget recommendation to reflect the most recent revenue estimate.

The House and Senate have agreed that there will be about $5.4 billion to spread among state agencies for fiscal year 2011, which starts July 1. Barbour based his budget outline on that number.

The big-ticket items aren’t affected much, based on their funding for FY2010.

Education, under Barbour’s plan, would receive $3 million less in FY2011 than it got in FY2010. THe education budget eats up $4.57 billion of the available $5.4 billion.

Barbour does propose taking $30 million from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to create a fund that would offer bridge loans to school districts that needed them.

“That’s not really fair to the districts that are run well,” Barbour said. The National Board Certified Teachers program, which pays a salary supplement to teachers who meet certain criteria, would remain fully funded.

The news isn’t as good for higher education, which would receive 12 percent less year to year. The community and junior college system (11 percent less) is in a similar situation.

Medicaid’s budget is still somewhat up in the air, as states await Congress’ decision to extend (or not extend) the enhanced FMAP that would pour $187 million into Mississippi’s Medicaid program. That uncertainty is why lawmakers took a recess in the first place.

Corrections would undergo a 4.8 percent cut, and the Department of Public Safety would have its appropriation cut 8 percent. Barbour said the 4 percent cut to the Corrections budget would not result in the release of prisoners who were otherwise not scheduled for parole.

In all, Barbour’s proposal would trim most agencies’ funding levels between 12 and 17 percent, with some cut more and some cut less. Those cut the most include Attorney General Jim Hood’s office (17.4 percent), IHL’s agriculture units (16.9 percent) and Barbour’s office (14.8 percent).

Lawmakers return to Jackson to craft the FY2011 budget April 20.

Musical heritage takes center stage at MEC meeting

April 13th, 2010 1 comment

The Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting is this Thursday at the Jackson Convention Complex.

Headlining the event are Gov. Haley Barbour and two Mississippi music legends — Marty Stuart and Dorothy Moore. The meeting will concentrate on the state’s musical heritage, which has become a focal point of the tourism industry with the Mississippi Blues Trail, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and the recently unveiled Mississippi Country Music Trail.

That Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives will be there is especially exciting for Magnolia Marketplace. Stuart’s early 1990s duets with Travis Tritt have been mainstays on the Official iPod of Magnolia Marketplace. For our money, not many things are finer than spending a spring Friday afternoon commute with the windows down and Marty and Travis blaring on the speakers. This and this are two of the pair’s better efforts, in our humble opinion.

Registration starts Thursday morning at 8:30. Online registration has closed, but you can register on site at the JCC. We’ll be there, and couldn’t be more excited about it.