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New councilman Whitwell talks arena, local option sales tax and city budget

February 16th, 2011 No comments

Quentin Whitwell won Tuesday’s special election to represent Jackson’s Ward 1 on the City Council, after former councilman Jeff Weill was elected last fall to the Hinds County Circuit Court bench.

Magnolia Marketplace had a phone conversation with Whitwell Wednesday morning, just before he headed to City Hall to polish up some paperwork in advance of his swearing-in on Thursday.

We talked about the downtown arena and the local option sales tax legislation Jackson leaders are attempting to push through the Legislature. Here’s what he told us:

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. essentially took over the arena project late last year from the private entities that had been pursuing it for a couple years.

The city’s action was not met with much enthusiasm from the private sector. Johnson responded to that by saying that the private sector would have to be involved if a downtown arena were to become a reality.

Whitwell acknowledged that there is an inherent mistrust between Johnson and Jackson’s business community that was developed over Johnson’s first two terms.

“That’s something we have to get over,” Whitwell said. “I definitely believe this is an opportunity for the business community and the city to actually get things done. Whether we agree with the mayor every time or not, he is the mayor. I think it’s a positive, not a negative.”

The bill that would allow Jackson voters to decide via referendum if they would accept a 1 percent sales tax whose revenue would fund water and street infrastructure repair and maintenance has cleared the Senate and sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. As the bill reads now, hotels and restaurants, to go with retail food sales and cable and satellite TV service providers’ income, would be exempt from the additional tax.

“My fiscal conservative nature tells me that we are looking at a $300 million budget that is bloated,” Whitwell said. “There are a lot of things that can be cut. I’m not one of those people looking for more dollars in general.

“Having said that, I have been a vocal supporter of the optional sales tax for seven or eight years, going back to working with (Ridgeland) Mayor Gene McGee when he was president of the Mississippi Municipal League.

“I believe that the optional sales tax is a good measure because, No. 1, it’s ‘optional,’ and No. 2, the local government knows best what projects will make it successful,” Whitwell continued. ”If Jackson is successful at passing this bill, I think it could be very good and it could free up additional monies (should 60 percent of voters approve it). But I’m going to be a watchdog over the taxpayer money. We already have a pretty high tax system and I think we need to be finding areas to be lowering taxes to start drawing people back into the city.”

When we asked Whitwell for specific things he thinks could or should be trimmed from the city’s budget, he mentioned the overhead associated with administrative departments and their staff, whose hiring process he called “the friends and family plan. I think that needs to be examined and cut significantly.”

““In 1990, our budget was $100 million,” he said. “It was projected then that our budget 20 years later would be $200 million. Since then, we’ve lost enough citizens to fill the city of Vicksburg, about 35,000 people. Yet our budget has increased an additional 50 percent of what was projected. What that tells me is that we’re spending more money than we really should spend.”

Damages cap briefs due to fly any minute

February 14th, 2011 No comments

A couple of newsy items on a pretty Monday morning …

The Mississippi Supreme Court has set a Feb. 28 deadline for parties to file briefs related to the damages cap question the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals kicked back to the state court earlier this year.

If last year’s premises liability case that also addressed the punitive damages cap is any indication, the briefs should come in by the truckload.

Mississippi’s $1 million cap on punitive damages was the cornerstone of 2004′s tort reform. It essentially eliminated the massive judgments that had earned the state a reputation as a plaintiff attorney’s paradise. The premises liability case reached the state’s high court last year after the plaintiff appealed the trial judge’s setting aside a $4 million jury verdict, and reducing it to comply with the $1 million cap. The Mississippi court clearly answered the premises liability issue, but did not rule on the constitutionality of the damages cap. That’s what the Fifth Circuit is asking the Supreme Court to do now.

Expect every business group and trade association there is to file a friend of the court brief in support of the cap. Gov. Haley Barbour, like he did in the premises liability case, will probably do the same.

A lawyer friend of Magnolia Marketplace told us a few weeks back that if the Court rules the damages cap is out of line with the Mississippi Constitution, “it’ll be like 1995 all over again” as far as the state’s tort climate goes. “All hell will break loose,” he said. “It’ll be like tort reform never happened.”

A lot of folks have a lot on the line in this deal.

In other news, Dave Dennis officially kicks off his campaign for governor this week, with stops planned all across the state. Unofficially, he’s been campaigning for over a year now.

Lynn Fitch, executive director of the State Personnel Board, will also start her campaign for treasurer with a three-day announcement tour.

Strap in. It’s going to be a busy week.

 

Butch Brown: Hard to fathom “callousness” behind ouster

February 8th, 2011 1 comment

The Mississippi Transportation Commission voted 2-1 to fire MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown in a meeting this morning.

Magnolia Marketplace was able to reach Brown, who is in Houston, Texas, undergoing cancer treatment at M.D. Anderson, on his cell phone just after noon.

“I’m shocked,” said Brown, who has served in the post about a decade. “It’s hard to fathom the callousness behind a move like this.”

Brown had surgery related to prostate cancer, his third bout with the disease, on Jan. 21. He has remained at M.D. Anderson since, and has additional procedures scheduled over the next few days. Before Tuesday’s vote, he said he expected to return to his office “within the next few weeks.”

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall and new Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert voted to terminate Brown. Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown voted to retain him until June 30, when Butch Brown had previously announced he planned to retire.

“I’m disgusted,” Wayne Brown said shortly after the meeting. “I thought there would be more compassion and more understanding. This is heartless. The man’s already been thrown under the bus, and we just backed the ambulance over him.”

Hall said the decision was “performance-based.”

“If you want somebody gone, you don’t let them hang around for five or six months,” said Hall, who has had a long-running feud with Butch Brown. “That’s not the way you run a business. I truly feel sorry for him. I’m a cancer survivor myself, but that didn’t factor into the equation.”

Under the terms of the vote, Butch Brown has until the close of business Wednesday to resign. He told us he had already submitted his resignation.

“This leaves me in a vulnerable, uninsurable position,” Butch Brown said. “M.D. Anderson is not a cheap place to get treatment. It’s a pretty callous way to treat a man.”

We still haven’t gotten up with Tagert. When we do, we’ll post what he says.

Barbour joins in healthcare reform letter

February 7th, 2011 No comments

Twenty of the nation’s GOP governors, including Gov. Haley Barbour, released a letter Monday afternoon that they sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in which they outlined specific changes they would like to see made to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

This is the most detailed challenge to the healthcare law GOP leadership has offered so far. To go with the suggestions, Barbour and others repeat their desire that the PPACA be repealed in the event the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t strike it down. With neither end a certainty, the letter lays out a critical decision states will have to make regarding health insurance exchanges.

Here are the changes the letter proposes (quoting it directly):

* Provide states with complete flexibility on operating the exchange, most importantly the freedom to decide which licensed insurers are permitted to offer their products

* Waive the bill’s costly mandates and grant states the authority to choose benefit rules that meet the specific needs of their citizens

* Waive the provisions that discriminate against consumer-driven health plans, such as health savings accounts (HSA’s)

* Provide blanket discretion to individual states if they chose to move non-disabled
Medicaid beneficiaries into the exchanges for their insurance coverage
without the need of further HHS approval

 

* Deliver a comprehensive plan for verifying incomes and subsidy amounts for
exchange participants that is not an unfunded mandate but rather fully funded by
the federal government and is certified as workable by an independent auditor

 

* Commission a new and objective assessment of how many people will end up in
the exchanges and on Medicaid in every state as a result of the legislation
(including those “offloaded” by employers), and at what potential cost to state
governments. The study must be conducted by a neutral third-party research
organization agreed to by the states represented in this letter

 

These proposals no doubt represent the talking points the national GOP will stick to in the healthcare debate moving forward. Expect to hear them early and often.

 

Categories: Haley Barbour, News, Politics, State revenue Tags:

Barbour looks back, ahead in speech to MEDC

February 3rd, 2011 No comments

Economic development is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.

That was the general theme of Gov. Haley Barbour’s speech at the Mississippi Economic Development Council’s Winter Meeting Thursday morning at the Hilton in Jackson.

No better illustration of that concept exists, Barbour said, than the process that led to Toyota’s decision to build in Blue Springs.

In the summer of 2004, a few months after Barbour started his first term, he went to the annual Mississippi Picnic in the Park in New York City’s Central Park. While he was there, Barbour ran into a few Toyota executives. Toyota had not made it known that they intended to build a new facility in North America, but Barbour chatted up Mississippi anyway.

“We worked with Toyota on tort reform, and on a lot of things that had nothing at all to do with Toyota,” Barbour told the several hundred gathered in one of the Hilton’s ballrooms.

And when Toyota started the competitive process to select a new site, “we were in a good position to compete because we had started the marathon,” Barbour said.

This was the eighth and final time Barbour would address the MEDC’s Winter Meeting, at least as governor. He did a lot of reflecting, recounting the horror of Katrina and the early stages of economic and physical recovery. He implored the economic developers in attendance to have a plan in place for every conceivable disaster, natural or otherwise.

And speaking of Katrina, Barbour said Mississippi stood its best chance of emerging from the recession at the front of the pack because of the acclaim Mississippi earned for the way we handled ourselves in the wake of the hurricane.

“CEOs told me then and they tell me now that we have an awful lot to be proud of,” Barbour said.

The speech was not without a small amount of political posturing. Barbour said he was writing a letter today to lawmakers, urging them to refrain from spending all of the state’s Rainy Day Fund for fiscal year 2012, whose budget-crafting process, to go with redistricting, will be the biggest issue of the legislative session. Depleting the cash reserves would increase Mississippi’s chances of landing another Toyota or Nissan, because it would give those companies assurance that “their taxes aren’t going to be increased,” Barbour said. “And that’s music to their ears.”

 

Natchez natives open brewery in La., hope laws and luck eventually allow for big expansion into Miss.

February 1st, 2011 No comments

Charles Caldwell and William McGehee grew up in Natchez.

After high school, McGehee matriculated to LSU while Caldwell, obviously the smarter of the two, headed to Ole Miss.

After graduation, Caldwell took a job reviewing and processing loans at a bank in Natchez and McGehee went to law school at LSU.

It wouldn’t last long. Long story short, Caldwell and McGehee decided to drop everything and chase a dream. They opened their own brewery.

Tin Roof Brewing Co. started operations in Baton Rouge last November on the same weekend Ole Miss played LSU in Tiger Stadium. Thankfully, the Rebels’ poor performance did not curse the upstarts.

The opposite is true. Tin Roof brews two different beers – a pale ale named Voodoo Bengal and an amber ale the business partners call Perfect Tin. They plan to begin distribution in New Orleans this week, just in time for Mardi Gras.

Both beers contain an alcohol-by-weight content that conforms to Mississippi law, which limits ABW to 5 percent, the lowest in the U.S.

That won’t be the case long, though. Caldwell, 27, and McGehee, 29, have ordered a third fermenter to go with the two they use to brew Voodoo Bengal and Perfect Tin and plan to start later this year brewing seasonal beers and various India pale ales whose ABW is higher than 5 percent. That means their sale and distribution won’t be legal in Mississippi.

That disappoints Caldwell.

“The culture here and just the general attitude toward alcohol makes it easier,” he said of the difference in Mississippi and Louisiana. “We had already decided that we were going to open our brewery in Baton Rouge when we got into this. But even if, like, Oxford had been a big enough market for us to consider, Baton Rouge still would have won out because of the beer-content laws there.”

Several pieces of legislation that would raise Mississippi’s ABW cap face an almost certain death today, the deadline for committees to report bills to the floor of their respective chambers. Raise Your Pints and other organizations supporting the legislation have promised to continue the fight next year.

“It’s sad how the laws are now,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got friends and family all over Mississippi, and they’ve been some of our biggest supporters. Obviously, I think Mississippi could be a big market for us. I’m counting on being able to sell my beer there. We think there’s money to be made there, and a lot of tax dollars, too. It’s in the cards hopefully.”

 

 

Categories: News, Ole Miss, Politics Tags:

Bryant, business groups weigh in on House immigration bill

January 28th, 2011 1 comment

It was late Thursday afternoon when the House blindsided the Senate with an immigration bill that, structurally, shifts the liability for enforcing illegal immigration laws from law enforcement to the businesses that hire them.

The Senate’s version put most of the burden of enforcing illegal immigration laws on law enforcement; the bill included provisions that allowed citizens to sue their local police department or sheriff’s office if that citizen felt either agency was not doing enough, under the terms of the bill, to stop illegal immigration. Businesses who knowingly hired illegal immigrants faced mostly administrative penalties, like the possibility of lost operating licenses and probationary periods in which they had to submit employment reports to their local district attorney.

The House version takes a different tack. Gone is the ability to sue law enforcement, and in its place are heavy monetary penalties for businesses who knowingly hire folks who turn out to be in the U.S. illegally. The specifics: A $5,000 fine per day per illegal worker, up to $25,000 per day. That’s a lot of cash and would put most small businesses out of commission within a few days.

The House’s position is pretty simple: Illegal workers wouldn’t be here if businesses would stop hiring them.

Two directors of major business groups Magnolia Marketplace spoke with Friday morning had two wildly different opinions of the House bill.

Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturing Association, didn’t have much of a problem with it “per se.”

“There are some things we’re not quite sure of,” he said. One of the biggest ambiguities, Moon said, is the question of whether companies that verify their workers’ residency eligibility through E-Verify, and that worker turns out to be here illegally, are still subject to the $5,000 per day fine for that worker.

One part of the bill seems to say the companies would be held harmless; another section seems to insinuate they would not.

“We’re not complaining about the sanctions, because we don’t support any manufacturer that hires undocumented workers, but we would like to see that cleaned up a little bit,” Moon said. “We have more procedural questions about the bill than anything else. The general spirit of it is something we can live with.”

Buddy Edens, head of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, had not read the bill when we spoke to him Friday morning, but said the notion of businesses being slapped with a fine that high “makes no sense at all. That’s pretty excessive.”

Politically, the breakdown of the House vote could present a conundrum for Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate GOP leadership.

Two Republican representatives, Larry Baker of Senatobia and Jessica Upshaw of Diamondhead, were absent when the vote went down Thursday afternoon. Rep. Tad Campbell, R-Meridian, voted against it. Every other House Republican voted for it.

Bryant was one of the bill’s most ardent supporters before the Senate sent it to the House. So he has a watershed decision to make in an election year that for him is the most important of his political life: Does he take a hardline stand against illegal immigration at the expense of the business community, which will solidify his popularity with the Tea Party and alienate his law enforcement and most of his business supporters? Or does he protect the business community and open himself up to accusations of being soft on illegal immigration?

He’s not totally tipping his hand yet.

“This is part of the legislative process,” he said in an emailed statement to Magnolia Marketplace. “But we believe the Senate has a better approach to a more fair and reasonable illegal immigration reform. The Senate bill mandates e-verify to protect employers and legal employees while giving law enforcement the authority to arrest those who cross our borders and violate our immigration laws.”

 

 

 

Categories: Elections, News, Phil Bryant, Politics Tags:

Viking Classic economic impact numbers have arrived

January 27th, 2011 No comments

Thursday morning, Magnolia Marketplace got some numbers we’ve been waiting on for several weeks.

A study commissioned by the Mississippi Development Authority and conducted by Mississippi State’s College of Business and its Extension Service took a look at the economic impact of the PGA Tour’s Viking Classic, played every year at Annandale Golf Club in Madison.

Surveyors asked 2,500 attendees at last fall’s Viking how much money they spent on things like food, gas, hotel rooms, how much money they spent at the course on memorabilia, etc.

Here’s what they found:

The total economic impact of the tournament is $22 million. That includes a value added total of $12.5 million, which reflects things like return in rents, wages, interest and profits, according to a press release from MSU. That economic activity created 362 jobs, including 280 direct jobs and 77 indirect jobs.

“It’s a significant amount,” said Dr. Becky Smith, an economist for the College of Business who coordinated the project with Garen Evans and Al Myles, MSU Extension economists in the agricultural economics department.

The total estimated impact on labor income came in at $7.2 million, including $4.9 million worth of income directly attributable to the event, and an another $2.3 million from indirect and induced impacts. Estimated sales taxes collected from Viking-related spending was $1.5 million.

Before this latest study, the last economic impact analysis of the Viking Classic came in the mid-1990s and pegged it at $20 million. It’s no surprise at all that the new numbers came in over that.

These figures will be a part of the sales pitch for tournament organizers when it comes time to sit down with Viking Range to start renewal negotiations. Viking’s title sponsorship contract expires after this year’s tournament, which will be played in July instead of September.

The MDA paid MSU $30,000 to conduct the study. Surveys were taken by undergraduate students at MSU’s College of Business and were gathered during the three-day run-up to the tournament and during the four days of play.

Duvall surprised at level of attention his Ole Miss bill is getting

January 26th, 2011 No comments

In the 2009 legislative session, Rep. Mark Duvall, D-Mantachie, was one of two authors of a bill that would have prohibited the use of automated cameras on streets and highways to catch folks speeding, running stop signs or red lights or any other illegal traffic shenanigans. The bill eventually gained Gov. Haley Barbour’s approval and the use of any kind of electronic recording equipment to police traffic is now illegal in Mississippi.

Duvall, who’s in his first term, got a lot of blowback on that issue, but nothing like he’s getting now on his bill that would mandate the Ole Miss mascot be Colonel Rebel, the sports teams’ nickname be Rebels, and that the band play “Dixie.”

Magnolia Marketplace just wrapped up a 15-minute phone conversation with Duvall. We’ll get to what he said in just a second, but first a little background on Duvall:

After graduating from Mantachie High School, he attended Itawamba Community College with the hopes of majoring in pharmacy at Ole Miss. Before he finished at ICC, he decided he wanted to major in engineering, so Mississippi State made the most sense. He said he pulls for Ole Miss except when the Rebels play the Bulldogs.

“And then I’m a Bulldog fan,” he said.

So with that in mind, why did Duvall introduce this bill?

“Out of concern that was expressed to me from some of the folks in my district because of the mascot change,” he said. “They didn’t feel they were getting their point across to the athletic department and the administration, so I said I’d do whatever I could to help that happen. Filing this bill is the only way I could do that.”

House Bill 1106 has been referred to the Universities and Colleges Committee. Duvall realizes it has virtually no shot of making it out to the House floor. Like the traffic camera bill two years ago, Duvall said it’s possible the mascot/Dixie legislation could be attached to an appropriations bill. “But that would all depend on the mood of the House,” he said. Duvall added that he has not received any direct feedback from Ole Miss brass.

He’s received plenty from everybody else.

“I really didn’t think it would get this much coverage,” he said. “My email inbox is flooded. My cell phone won’t stop ringing. I’m pretty sure my secretary is ready for this to be over, but it’s all part of the process.”

Anheuser-Busch: No position on beer legislation

January 24th, 2011 6 comments

Raise Your Pints President Butch Bailey has been making the media rounds in the week since the Mississippi Business Journal had a cover story about the grassroots organization’s efforts to update Mississippi’s beer laws.

Bailey was on WLBT very early this morning, though Magnolia Marketplace didn’t catch it because the segment aired before we were awake.

Anyway, Jackson Jambalaya had a blog post yesterday that detailed the money trail from Anheuser-Busch and its lobbyist, Beth Clay, to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby that stretched back a couple years. It’s worth a read.

It’s in Kirby’s Finance Committee where the legislation that would raise the alcohol content in beer from 5 percent alcohol by weight to 8 percent ABW has died the last two sessions, and where it will very likely die again this session.

But a House bill identical to the Senate version died in the Ways and Means Committee last year, the first time it was introduced by Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, and will probably die again this session. Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, chairs the Ways and Means Committee.

A glance through Watson’s campaign finance filings from the past two years lists the max ($1,000) contribution in 2008 and 2009 from Anheuser-Busch, just like Kirby’s filings do. Filings from 2010 aren’t due in to the secretary of state’s office until Jan. 31.

Also included in Watson’s filings from 2008 and 2009 are $1,000 donations from the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association, whose president told the MBJ for our story last week that it supports the beer legislation. Kirby’s filings do not show any money from the MMBA.

Anheuser-Busch would seem to have the most to lose from the influx of craft beer to Mississippi, because its main competitor, Miller-Coors distributor Capital City Beverage Co. in Jackson, is the main importer and distributor of what little craft and gourmet beer is legal in Mississippi. In an emailed statement to the MBJ from region VP for state affairs Doug Bailey, Anheuser-Busch said it had no position on the beer legislation, intended to take no action on it via its lobbyist Clay, and that the alcohol content of beer in Mississippi “is a matter for the state legislature and Mississippi consumers to decide.”

We’ll let you decide if A-B really means that.

Categories: News, Politics Tags: