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Miss. Supreme Court unanimously upholds open carry law

August 29th, 2013 2 comments

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday afternoon that House Bill 2 – the “open carry law” – is constitutionally clear, agreeing with the state that the law should take effect immediately.

The ruling came in the form of an order, agreed to by all nine justices, and signed by Justice Randy Pierce. The law will take effect immediately.

The fight over HB 2, which passed last legislative session, started earlier this summer when Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith asked Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd to issue an injunction that would keep the law from taking effect July 1. Smith was joined by a handful of law enforcement agencies.

Kidd granted the injunction, saying then that the law was vague. Attorney General Jim Hood’s office appealed Kidd’s ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The high court said in its ruling Thursday that Kidd “erred as a matter of law when he found House Bill 2 to be vague and, therefore, unconstitutional.” The court also disagreed with the portion of Kidd’s ruling that said a reading of the law did not allow a reasonable person to determine what is and what is not prohibited.

HB 2 makes it lawful to carry weapons and firearms, as long as they’re not concealed. Exceptions include certain government buildings like courthouses and schools and private property where they owner has forbidden them. It does not change the state’s conceal carry law, which requires those carrying concealed weapons have a permit.

To read the three-page order, click here.

Grant to fund financial literacy program at MSU

July 10th, 2013 No comments

A $40,000 grant from the Council of Graduate Schools will help Mississippi State University develop a financial education program for undergraduate and graduate students.

The grant is part of CGS’ Enhancing Financial Education Project, and is co-sponsored by financial services provider TIAA-CREF. The program will be designed to educate students about how to manage their personal financing and make good decisions related to saving, spending and borrowing money.

It will include face-to-face workshops, online training, traditional courses, career counseling, communication networks and social media.

Karen Coats, MSU associate dean of the Graduate School and co-principal investigator for the project, said student loan debt exceeded $1 trillion nationwide last year.

“As students amass debt at the undergraduate level, many of our best and brightest are unable to continue their education in graduate or professional school, preventing them from achieving mastery of their discipline and limiting their ability to reach their full potential,” Coats said in a school press release. “Mississippi State is committed to the well-being of our students and recognizes the need to help students make sound and informed financial decisions.”

Mississippi State’s Office of the Graduate School, in partnership with faculty and staff experts in financial literacy, student financial aid, information systems and technology, career counseling, and other student services, will use the funding to establish a comprehensive financial literacy program for MSU students.

“It is our hope that this program will promote financially informed students who will leave our institution with a brighter future,” Coats said.

CGS President Debra W. Stewart said that the project addresses an area of leading concern for graduate deans, according to an annual survey of CGS members.

“In collaboration with 14 other awardees and 19 affiliate partners, Mississippi State University is stepping up to help students prepare for the financial challenges of college life and beyond,” Stewart said.

At the Capitol, state Treasurer Lynn Fitch supported legislation this last session that would have mandated financial literacy courses for Mississippi high school students. The legislation failed, but Fitch has said she will push it again in 2014.

Hosemann seeks input to reform state’s business laws

May 21st, 2013 No comments

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann wants your input on how to reform Mississippi’s business laws.

The past few years, Hosemann has assembled study groups populated by representatives from almost every industry that does business in Mississippi to kick around ideas. Work done by the groups has led to the passage of legislation like the SMART Business Act, which passed last session and offers a 25 percent rebate for Mississippi companies that contract with state colleges and universities for research.

Past sessions have also included reform to Mississippi’s statutes regarding LLCs, securities, copper theft and corporate trademarks. In all, more than 90 percent of the legislation Hosemann backed has passed.

Hosemann has already put together his business study groups that will work in advance of the 2014 session that starts in January. The groups started meeting this month.

Hosemann’s office has also set up a page on his official website to gather ideas. The digital surveys are designed to complement the work done by the business study groups. The page does not restrict the number or scope of ideas users can submit.

To fill out the form and offer feedback, click here.

Regulator: Day’s departure due to his withholding Kemper information

May 20th, 2013 5 comments

Mississippi Power Co. has made an abrupt change at the top.

Southern Co.’s board of directors voted Monday to name G. Edison “Ed” Holland the utility’s new leader. Holland replaces Ed Day, who has been president since 2010. Day has spent a total of 30 years with Southern Co.

The change will be effective immediately. Holland will be “responsible for the operations of Mississippi Power, including overseeing the continued construction of the Kemper County energy facility,” said a company press release.

Southern Co. gave no reason for Day’s departure, but it comes about a week after the Mississippi Public Service Commission learned that Day had ordered that documents containing details of when the utility knew about cost overruns at the Kemper County coal plant be withheld from regulators.

The PSC in April 2012 affirmed the project’s certificate of public convenience and necessity, after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the original certificate – issued in 2010 – did not cite sufficient evidence from the record of proceedings.

In May 2012, Mississippi Power revealed that the Kemper facility would cost roughly $300 million more than it had originally estimated.

Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz, who counts as his constituents most of Mississippi Power’s 190,000 ratepayers, said in an interview Monday morning that regulators asked about a year ago for information that outlined when the company knew about the overrun, in response to it being revealed right after the PSC reaffirmed the project’s certificate.

Day, Bentz said, ordered that the information be withheld.

“My investigation revealed about a week ago that there was information not being given to us under the direction of Ed Day,” Bentz said. Bentz said regulators received the requested overrun information last week. He added that his office will continue to investigate the matter.

“We’re not done,” he said. “This is an absolutely ridiculous way of doing business. Corporations sometimes hide behind trying to protect the shareholders. If this is what that is, they live in a different society than what’s right. We were not fed and given the proper information. What does that do to the credibility of Mississippi Power moving forward?

“This is a culture that has kind of somewhat become acceptable in the corporate world, to put a spin on everything,” Bentz continued. “Talk straight and give me the truth. A spin is a lie to me. We are not done. We are going to protect the ratepayers. Ed Day’s departure is a direct result of us as regulators doing our jobs and protecting the ratepayers.”

Bentz said Southern Co. CEO Thomas Fanning “has done everything he said he would do” since becoming involved in the matter. “He deserves a lot of credit.”

The Kemper County coal plant is scheduled to begin production in May 2014. Mississippi Power last month revised the project’s cost estimate upward, bumping it to just over $3 billion. Per the terms of a settlement with the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the utility can charge ratepayers only for the first $2.4 billion in construction costs. Lawmakers approved in the session that ended in April up to $1 billion in bonding authority that would cover cost overruns. The bond falls outside PSC jurisdiction.

“They told us they could build this plant for $2.4 billion, and that’s what we expect them to do,” Bentz said.

U.S. Senate bill seeks to lower craft brewery excise tax

May 14th, 2013 1 comment

American Craft Beer Week has gotten a congressional boost.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is one of 18 bipartisan sponsors of legislation that would reduce the excise tax on brewers that make up to 6 million barrels of beer per year to $3.50 on the first 60,000 barrels and $16 on additional barrels under 2 million annually.

Small brewers, defined as those that brew fewer than 2 million barrels per year, pay $7 in excise taxes per barrel for the first 60,000 barrels annually.

Collins filed the bill Friday. Sponsors were not listed on the congressional website.

It could have an impact in Mississippi. Since the alcohol content in beer made and sold in the state was raised last year, a handful of breweries have started operation that would qualify for tax under the Small BREW Act.

An economic impact study by Dr. John Friedman at Harvard found the bill would generate $153 million in economic activity in the first year and almost $865 million over five years. It would create nearly 4,400 jobs in the first year.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

The small brewer threshold and tax rate were established in 1976 and have not been updated.  Since then, according to figures Collins supplied in a press release, the annual production of America’s largest brewery increased from 45 million barrels to 105 million barrels.

American Craft Beer Week, observed May 13-19, is designed to celebrate and bring awareness to America’s small and independent craft brewers and their contributions to America’s communities and our economy.

 

Lawmakers approve Yokohama incentives

April 26th, 2013 No comments

Lawmakers approved in a special session Friday a large load of state incentives for Yokohama Tire to make heavy equipment tires in Clay County.

The House passed authorized legislation 117-2 for the project Friday morning. The Senate did the same less than an hour later. The bill now goes to Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he intends to sign it.

The state will borrow $70 million for land, infrastructure and workforce training. Local governments will chip in $12 million, $1 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $900,000 from the TVA and $590,000 from natural gas utility Atmos Energy.

The first phase of the project will represent a $300 million investment from Yokohama, and create in the neighborhood of 500 jobs. The company has plans to expand in three additional phases, raising its investment to over $1 billion and job numbers to 2,000. The expansions are scheduled over the next eight to 10 years. Total state bonding authority for the project is $130 million, with everything above $70 million contingent upon the expansions.

Yokohama will build the facility on a 500-acre megasite close to West Point. Construction will start this fall with plans to start production in fall 2015. Economic development officials have spent the past several months marketing the site in hopes of luring a large manufacturer.

This is the first big fish for the new economic development consortium made up of West Point and Clay County , Columbus and Lowndes County and Starkville and Oktibbeha County. The consortium, known as the Golden Triangle Development Link, had in its sights a Yokohama-like project when it formed last year.

The House Ways and Means Committee passed the bill unanimously Friday morning. Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said talks with Yokohama started about a year ago. He said Clay County, whose March unemployment rate was second highest in the state at 18.2 percent, was one of two finalists.

Ad valorem taxes, under a revenue sharing plan West Point and Clay County have entered into, will be split between the city and county.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the company and the state contains clawback provisions that call for the state to receive $35,000 for every job the company comes up short in providing in each phase. For example, if the job count for phase one is 500, Yokohama will have to pay the state $35,000 for every job short of that. The same clawbacks apply to all four phases.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering will have oversight of the project, since the state bonds will be issued under the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Act. Pickering pushed legislation last session – and plans to push again next session – that would have extended his office’s oversight authority to all state bonding programs. Pickering currently does not have automatic oversight over projects assisted under bonding programs like the Advantage Jobs Act and the Mississippi Development Bank.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, offered an amendment to the incentive legislation that would have given Cooper Tire in Tupelo a sales tax on equipment break worth $1 million. The amendment was defeated.

“This is going to be such a shot in the arm for West Point,” Smith said.

 

 

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Blount and Gipson take different views of recently passed business incentives

April 8th, 2013 No comments

Sen. David Blount and Rep. Andy Gipson agree it’s a matter of time before they join their colleagues in a special session to hash out funding for the state’s Medicaid program.

Blount, a Jackson Democrat, and Gipson, a Simpson County Republican, recapped the just-ended legislative session Monday at the lunch meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps.

Lawmakers left Jackson last week with no funding for Medicaid after the fiscal year ends on June 30. Republicans and Democrats spent a lot of the session arguing over the program’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Like most others in his party, Blount supports expanding the program.

“I think we need to admit that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land,” he said. “And Mississippians will be paying for the expansion whether we actually do it or not.”

Blount cited figures that the program would cost the state $555 million through 2025, but would get $12.1 billion back from the federal government. He added that Democrats would be willing to consider alternatives to outright expansion – such as legislation that would trigger expansion if uncompensated care payments were to disappear from hospitals that provide indigent care.

Gipson echoed Gov. Phil Bryant’s assertion that the state could not afford to add another few hundred thousand Mississippians to the Medicaid rolls, and questioned if the federal government would keep its promise to pay 90 percent of the expansion costs. “It’s odd that a group was willing to leave the Capitol without funding Medicaid,” Gipson said of Democrats’ twice killing the legislation to do so.

Gipson and Blount also took differing views of the handful of tax credits and incentives lawmakers passed. Gipson said incentives applied properly “are great economic development tools,” listing as an example recently passed legislation designed to spur construction of a retail shopping complex in Pearl.

Blount said many times lawmakers vote on incentives without knowing their exact financial impact.

“The Legislature is passing bills that will have a long-term impact (on the state’s budget) with no information on what they will cost,” he said.

Solar tax credit legislation dies on deadline day

March 19th, 2013 No comments

Tuesday was the deadline for original floor action on appropriation and revenue bills that originated in the opposite chamber of the Legislature.

One of the bills that died would have offered a tax credit for the installation of solar energy systems.

House bill 1591 died in the Senate Finance Committee.

It would have offered an income and/or franchise tax credit for businesses that install solar energy systems, like those that use solar panels, and other services designed to improve energy efficiency. The credits would have applied to systems purchased and installed after July 1.

Similar legislation has passed in other states – California has become most associated with solar energy and offers similar tax credits — and has created some unintended consequences. Solar lease companies have become popular as money from the 2008 stimulus and other state and federal incentives for the industry became available. Homeowners who essentially rent the systems from solar lease companies don’t get the rebate because they did not purchase anything. The company receives the incentive.

What the homeowner does get is the lease debt associated with the system, even if it’s sold.

Regulation and oversight of solar lease companies – many of which are not headquartered in the state offering the tax credit – has also proven difficult.

The bill that died Tuesday would have allowed lease companies to take advantage of the credit.

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SMART Business Act moves forward before Thursday deadline

February 12th, 2013 No comments

The Strengthening Mississippi Academic Research Through (SMART) Business Act has passed the Senate ahead of the next major legislative deadline.

The bill would offer a 25 percent rebate to businesses that contract with Mississippi universities for qualified research. It’s one piece of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s legislative agenda.

The rebates for one business are capped at $1 million, and are capped overall at $5 million per year.

Hosemann said the legislation would fill some of the gap left by disappearing federal research funds, and help to strengthen the partnership between the business community and Mississippi colleges and universities.

The Senate Finance Committee did insert a reverse repealer into the bill, which is a mechanism used to keep alive the legislation before a deadline, like this Thursday’s deadline for floor action on original legislation. It’s also a way to ensure the legislation ends up in a conference committee.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was the lone “no” vote. The bill is Senate Bill 2537.

House passes Kemper bond, rate recovery bills

February 8th, 2013 2 comments

The Mississippi House of Representatives passed Friday morning legislation that would allow Mississippi Power to issue bonds, up to $1 billion, to cover costs over $2.4 billion for the Kemper County coal plant. Representatives also approved a bill that would give the Mississippi Public Service Commission authority to set a multi-year rate recovery plan for the plant once it becomes operational.

The vote on the bond bill was 90-26 after about an hour of discussion. The multi-year rate recovery plan bill passed 100-17 with no discussion. Both were held on a motion to reconsider, a procedural move that usually serves only to temporarily delay legislation’s forward movement.

Both bills were in response to a settlement reached last month between the utility and the PSC that lowered what the company could include in the project’s rate base from $2.88 billion to $2.4 billion. The bonds would cover anything over the cap.

Rep. Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro, offered several amendments to the bond bill that would have prohibited Mississippi Power from collecting any costs incurred before the passage of the legislation, limited what the company could place into the bonds and changed the procedural mechanisms the bond requests would meet at the PSC. She said any decision about cost overruns should lie with the PSC, not on lawmakers.

“This settlement put the $1 billion fee on the Legislature. If the Public Service Commission wants to do that, they have the power to do that.”

The amendments failed. “The more things the company is willing to put into (the rate recovery bonds), the less they can earn on a rate of return,” House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Charles Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said in opposing the amendment. “The company doesn’t earn a rate of return on the bonds. Issuing the bonds will cost ratepayers less than including these costs in the rate base.”

Rep. Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, offered an amendment that would have limited to $500,000 attorneys’ fees related to issuing the bonds. It passed.

“This bill is fundamentally unfair to every member of the Legislature,” Horan said, echoing Lane’s assertion that the PSC should grapple with whether to allow cost overruns, not lawmakers. “This is a shame.”

Mississippi Power spokesperson Cindy Duvall said in a statement that Friday’s vote “takes us one step closer to saving Mississippi Power customers $1 billion or more.”

The coal plant is scheduled to begin commercial operation in May 2014.