Hewes’ committee picks — strange? Yes. Smart? We’ll see

July 12th, 2011 3 comments

It was less then a week ago when Tate Reeves’ campaign released poll figures that showed him with a 40-point lead over Billy Hewes in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor.

Tuesday morning, Hewes countered. At a press conference at the Capitol, Hewes revealed who he would name as chairmen of the most powerful committees in the Senate.

Here are his picks:

Appropriations: Doug Davis, R-Hernando, who has chaired that committee since Alan Nunnelee left for D.C.

Judiciary A: Chris McDaniel, R-Laurel. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, is the current chair of that committee.

Finance: Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, who is the committee’s current chair.

Education: Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, is the current chair of that committee.

Speaking of Carmichael, he would ascend to president pro tem of the Senate, Hewes said.

So let’s review: Hewes’ picks for critical chairmenships and president pro tem come from Rankin, Jackson, DeSoto and Lauderdale counties. You don’t have to be any kind of political expert to know that those are among the most populated GOP hotspots in Mississippi. Still, it’s odd, and Hewes has certainly backed himself into a corner and most likely alienated a few members (like Fillingane) of his party.

Even if you don’t put much stock in Reeves’ poll numbers, the fact remains that Hewes is considerably behind in the campaign cash race and the all-important name-recognition game.

Three weeks are left until the primary, a period Hewes called “an eternity.”

So we’ll be waiting a while to see if this was a shrewd political maneuver or an act of desperation.

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Private money, new stadium for Jackson State football loom as roadblocks for UMMC mega facility

July 10th, 2011 No comments
There are two major hurdles to clear if the area around University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is to become a medical research and treatment “city.”
Jackson State University has to relinquish control and management of Veterans Memorial Stadium, and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment from new and existing medical facilities has to be gathered. One will be easier than the other.
Legislation passed in the 2011 session transferred management responsibility of Veterans Memorial Stadium to Jackson State July 1. The university will now bear the expense of operating and maintaining the 70-year-old facility with a capacity of about 62,000. Included in that legislation, though, is a clause that gives the school the option of returning the stadium to the state on July 1, 2014, if the operational costs are more than the school could handle.
Michael Thomas, JSU’s vice president of business and finance, said the school is confident it can maintain the facility cost-effectively, and said he “couldn’t envision” the stadium returning to state ownership after that three-year window.
“Even with that, the ultimate goal is that we have our own stadium close to campus just because we think that would be more beneficial to JSU,” Thomas said last week in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal.
The timeline for a new stadium and the first phase of the medical city are intertwined. Thomas said putting a preliminary timeline for construction of a place for the Jackson State Tigers to play their football games has not been established. He added that conversations among the school and UMMC have started to determine the future of Veterans Memorial if and when a new facility takes steps toward reality. Those talks include, Thomas said, finding ways to procure private funding.
“The initial conversation was looking toward a public-private partnership,” Thomas said. “We really haven’t thrown around any (cost) figures. We have to decide what the capacity would be, and what additional amenities it would have. The ultimate goal for both parties would be for Jackson State to have a new stadium, and UMC would be able to have their medical corridor. UMC was extremely supportive of that.”
Last year, UMMC put the finishing touches on a master plan that would guide the medical school’s existing facilities and its growth over the next 35 years. Dr. David Powe, UMMC’s chief administrative affairs officer, said the plan left in place Veterans Memorial Stadium. The growth path started at the school’s facilities and extended toward the farmer’s market on West Street, and called for the development of a bio-research park.
Powe said the medical school’s first priority as it pertains to Veterans Memorial is to let Jackson State drive the decision on whether to keep it or to raze it. If Jackson State builds a stadium either on or close to its campus, UMMC would regain ownership of the old facility.
“We don’t have a football team, so we would have no use for the stadium. So we would develop a plan for the development for that property,” Powe said. “There’s a lot involved here, and we don’t want to cloud the issue. We want to make sure everyone understands that we’re in full support of Jackson State.”
Ideally, a medical city would include a mixture of research, academic and clinical sectors, to go with a retail component, Powe said. It would have to include a huge amount of private investment, the recruitment of which has already begun through a joint effort between UMMC and the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is one four Republicans on the gubernatorial primary ballot, has recently made the creation of a medical city that extends from State Street to Hawkins Field a part of his campaign. Bryant said in an interview with the Mississippi Business Journal last week that the percentage of private investment, based on early projections, would have to be “between 70 and 75 percent” with the state kicking in the rest. Exact cost figures have not been determined yet, he said.
“Obviously, we don’t have the money in state government (to fully fund such a mammoth project). You don’t want to bond to that extent, but the medical community is the fastest-growing segment of the economy. We need to take advantage of it. We’re very early in the process.”
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A quick glance at latest poll numbers in Lt. Gov. race

July 6th, 2011 1 comment

Tate Reeves’ campaign released Wednesday morning poll numbers that show the treasurer is leading his opponent in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Billy Hewes, by more than 40 points.

Out of 500 likely voters in the Aug. 2 primary surveyed by OnMessage Inc., 56 percent said they would vote for Reeves. Hewes garnered 16 percent.

What caught our eye immediately was that the results of the poll, taken June 29-30, showed that Reeves led in the Gulfport-Biloxi area, which Hewes has represented in the Legislature for two decades.

Obviously, the importance of these numbers lies in the eyes of the beholder. Reeves and his followers will likely take them as gospel; the Hewes camp probably won’t give them much more than a passing thought. The wisdom or folly of either approach will be decided Aug. 2.

For the full release from the Reeves campaign, click here.

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Olive branch approach replaces boxing gloves

July 5th, 2011 No comments

Skeleton crews from the city councils of Biloxi and Gulfport have met in the first of what they hope is a series of meetings designed to resolve a longstanding dispute over which city has the right to annex property in the vicinity of Highway 605.
The property ostensibly will be the site of a residential development, and was set to be taken in by Gulfport until a Harrison County chancellor on June 22 threw out the city’s annexation case, citing the city’s decision to change location and construction details of the subdivision’s water and sewer infrastructure in the middle of the trial, after the discovery phase had ended. With or without the subdivision, each city agrees the property is primed for some type of development, and would mean substantial revenue, though neither side had figures.
With the court proceedings halted, each side agreed to at least a temporary truce to the legal wrangling. Starting with last week’s meeting, three members from each council will meet the second Tuesday of every month in an effort to arrive at an agreement without expensive litigation.
“We tend to get stuff second-hand,” said Biloxi City Council president Clark Griffith, explaining the reason behind the meetings. “There is not a forum, and that is what we set up (Tuesday), a forum where can talk directly with another. We are not making any decisions, but it provides a forum for useful discussion.”
Said Gulfport City Council president Ricky Dombrowski: “We decided we should at least sit down and talk about it to see if we could come up with a resolution.”
The initial reviews were heavy on optimism, but both sides agreed there remains work to do.
The biggest roadblock is how much land on either side of the Biloxi River either city will be willing to let the other take. The river, which runs northwest from the coastline to U.S. 49 in northern Harrison County, has historically served as a natural boundary separating the two cities. Prior administrations from each city, Dombrowski said, have had handshake agreements that kept one city from crossing the river into the other.
Using the talks to reach an agreement on growth paths that can be taken back to the full councils and voted upon will eliminate the legal confusion that dogged the latest round of annexation litigation.
“We’re going to put the lines in our land plan, put it in writing eventually and filed in our (council) minutes,” Dombrowski said. “Then you’ve got a little more teeth in it. That’s the direction we’re going.”
An ideal solution for Gulfport, he added, would have to include crossing the river somewhere, most likely in the vicinity of Highway 605.
“We don’t want to be cut off on our growth path. And if you look at the Biloxi River, we’ll never agree to (not crossing it at some point). Giving that up would totally cut us off from any kind of growth.”
Griffith said Gulfport coming across the river at some point would be agreeable, but it would have to be farther north than the 605 area. He pointed to Gulfport’s past annexation of the Orange Grove area, when the city stopped on the banks of the Biloxi River, the same way Biloxi stopped at the river when it annexed Woolmarket. “That’s been the natural boundary of the two cities. At this point, to take away some of the things that have already been adjudicated in prior annexations and to go across the Biloxi River and take part of Biloxi is non-negotiable because that’s already been negotiated.”
Griffith pointed to the criteria the Mississippi Supreme Court has established as criteria for annexation: city land adjoining the proposed site, established infrastructure and overlapping property. Biloxi, Griffith said, meets all of those requirements in the 605 vicinity. Gulfport, he added, does not.
Asked if he agreed with that, Dombrowski demurred. “I don’t really want to get in the legal arguments. I think we probably could say that we meet them, too. But that’s the sticking area. We have to decide whether we want to give up 605 or if that’s going to be a battle we’ll continue to fight.
“What I wanted out of the meeting we got. We didn’t slam the door on each other and scream and holler, and we agreed to another meeting. We are pretty far apart from each other, but we left with positive vibes on both sides.”
“You can never have a compromise if you never even propose one,” Griffith said. “Neighbors working together always make better neighbors.”

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University leaders: Federal DATA Act redundant, expensive

July 5th, 2011 1 comment

A bill making its way through Congress would digitize and consolidate the system used to track federal spending, but the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities says it duplicates existing systems and adds another layer of expense to critical university research projects.
The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — or DATA Act — would apply tracking requirements similar to those attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to federal grants, loans, contracts and the internal expenses of every federal agency.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform cleared the bill June 22 after a mark-up session. It now awaits action on the full House floor.
Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., who chairs the Oversight Committee said the DATA Act would bring financial transparency for every government agency into the digital age, leaving behind the cumbersome process of procuring paper records in favor of a centralized database.
The problem with that, though, is that Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning is already in the process of establishing a database that serves an identical purpose, said Don Zant, vice president for budget and planning at Mississippi State University. The IHL, per the terms of a law passed in the last legislative session, must have the database up and running by July 1, 2012. Like its potential federal sister, the state database would track spending by every state agency, and offer searchable, customizable results. Individual transactions would be available, to go with full audits and reports. The transactions have to be on the website within 14 days of the applicable action. The database would include records starting with fiscal year 2010.
IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton said getting the database operational will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars “but most likely won’t exceed $500,000.” That figure does not include regular maintenance once the site is up and running.
Zant told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview last Monday that even without the state mandate to formulate a database that would track the spending and results of every research project at Mississippi universities, there already exist several levels of federal oversight. Any university that receives federal funding for any purpose is subject to annual audits.
“Not only that, but pick a federal agency – transportation, education, public safety, you name it. They will do audits or monitoring visits for these projects,” Zant said. “It happens all the time. Plus the IHL already consolidates all the audits for the public universities, and they’re available for anybody to see. There’s already a lot of scrutiny and accountability.
“If we have to turn around and develop another database just like the one we’re already building, you’re talking about another major expense.”
The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities and the Council on Government Relations cited preliminary data being gathered by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, a cooperative initiative among federal agencies, that ARRA’s reporting requirements for university research-related money cost $87 million for 100 research institutions that were awarded the grants. According to the same figures, that comes to $7,900 per research award.
“The cost of control should never outweigh the benefit you’re going to receive,” Zant said. “If we already do this on a state level, what benefit would we get from doing the same thing because of a federal law? I think the intentions are good, but it’s possibly a lack of understanding of the controls already in place.
“Accountability and transparency are great, and we have to have it, but duplicating it on two different levels is just unnecessary and will be extremely expensive.”

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Sponsorship talks on hold until after tourney

June 28th, 2011 No comments

There’s very little that we know for sure about the negotiations to either keep Viking Range Corp. as the title sponsor of the Viking Classic, or to find a new one.
What is certain is that Randy Watkins, tournament director, and his team will not resume talks with anybody until after the tournament is over. The Viking tees off July 11 with the pre-tourney events; the first round starts July 14.
Watkins said the PGA Tour has given him a soft deadline of late August to reach a deal with a title sponsor. How rigid that deadline is unclear, even to Watkins.
“I don’t know because I’ve never pushed it,” he said. “I know we’re aiming at it.”
The Tour will release its full 2012 schedule in November, so it would seem having the title sponsor on board by then would be imperative.
As for who that company is, Watkins offered precious few hints. To go with Viking, the companies Watkins has had negotiations with are household names, he said, and at least some are based in Mississippi. “All I can say is we’re working with (Viking) and others who have expressed interest. I don’t know if it’s unlikely (that Viking will not re-up), but there’s just nothing to be said one way or the other right now.”
This is Viking’s fifth year as the title sponsor. Southern Farm Bureau flew its flag before that; and prior to that, the old Deposit Guaranty bank had its name on the door. Watkins said the total cost — including cash and personnel costs — associated with the title sponsorship is “close to a $1 million.”
The Viking tees off a full two months earlier than it has in recent years. That’s good, Watkins said, because it guarantees all four rounds will be broadcast live by the Golf Channel, and it assures the tournament will be a part of the FedEx Cup.
But the earlier date also constricts by about 100 days the negotiating window Watkins had with potential sponsors. “It would have been nice to have that extra time, but the TV exposure and the FedEx Cup make up for that,” he said.

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Tax dispute could end up where it began

June 28th, 2011 No comments

The fight over ad valorem tax revenue in Pascagoula and Jackson County could come full circle next legislative session if the Mississippi Supreme Court rules against the Pascagoula School District.
The court heard oral arguments June 13 in a dispute between the school district and the county over the distribution of ad valorem tax revenue collected from the Gulf LNG terminal and an expansion of the Chevron refinery.
The money is split among school districts in Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Jackson County and Moss Point. Pascagoula schools sued in an attempt to keep all the revenue within its district. The court is expected to issue a ruling before the end of the year.
If the court sides with the county, and the city seeks a legislative remedy, negotiations would have to be more fruitful than they were when the law was first passed in 2007.
Former Sen. Tommy Robertson filed the bill that launched 1,000 legal briefs on a Saturday less than a week before the end of the 2007 session, attaching it to an appropriations bill.
Robertson said in an interview last week that he met with Pascagoula School District superintendent Wayne Rodolfich and a handful of other Pascagoula officials the next day, and then again a day or two later, in an effort to reach a compromise.
“I offered for 50 percent of the new monies generated from the LNG and Chevron expansion be retained by the Pascagoula School District and the remainder be distributed among the Ocean Springs School District, the Jackson County School District and the Moss Point School District. I gave them a deadline of Thursday at 3 p.m., never will forget that. And Mr. Rodolfich and his attorney told me they would not take the deal. They just told me they wanted it all. When they told me that and they rejected my offer, I went to work. This whole mess could have been avoided.”
Robertson’s work resulted in Pascagoula, which receives about $14 million annually from the existing Chevron facility, having to share the new money with the other three school districts, with the amount based on an enrollment-driven formula.
Robertson said the revenue sharing is fair because the LNG terminal and the expanded refinery sit on land that is owned by the county. The land is not in the city limits, he said, but is surrounded by the Pascagoula School District.
Rodolfich told the Mississippi Business Journal last week that what initially alarmed him over Robertson’s bill was its timing, coming less than a week before session’s end and giving stakeholders and other lawmakers precious little time to review it.
Still, he and Robertson met with the goal of reaching a meeting of the minds, but to no avail.
“I made an effort to reach a compromise with Tommy Robertson,” Rodolfich said. “The compromise was for him to remove (the bill) and let cooler heads prevail and let it go through all the steps of the Legislature. None of that was done.”
Rodolfich added that Robertson’s offer to increase Pascagoula’s share of the tax money “just showed how arbitrary this whole thing is.”
Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who now holds the seat Robertson held in 2007, said he began meeting with leadership from each of the school districts near year’s-end in 2008, just before the start of the 2009 legislative session, with the same goal: to reach a compromise. But the result was also the same, he said: The Pascagoula School District balked at any form of revenue sharing.
“They weren’t really amenable to that,” Watson said. “They wanted no part of a compromise. They put up a stiff-arm.”
Should the court rule in favor of the county and the city seek to change the law in the Legislature, Watson said he would not support any bill that funnels all the money to Pascagoula.
“Sharing this money is the right thing to do,” he said.
Watson said he would be willing to support bumping up Pascagoula’s take, and to try to clarify language in the law that lowers tax payments based on depreciation in the value of equipment at each of the facilities.
Rodolfich was noncommittal when asked if he could live with any sort of revenue-sharing arrangement.
“That would ultimately be the school board’s decision.”
Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, who has filed bills that would repeal the distribution law, did not return messages left on his cell phone last week.

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Feds clear way for Choctaw casino in Jackson County, but …

June 28th, 2011 1 comment

If the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has any designs on building a casino in Jackson County, the recent ruling from the Bureau of Indian Affairs is good news.
The bad news? Gov. Haley Barbour, whose approval would be needed, said last week the project would not receive it.
On June 14, assistant secretary for Indian affairs Larry Echo Hawk rescinded a 2008 memorandum that restricted off-reservation gaming for Indian tribes across the U.S. The memorandum was one of the major roadblocks the Choctaws encountered in 2006 when they first considered building a casino on 60 acres off Highway 57 near Ocean Springs. The nearly 200-mile distance from the site in Jackson County to the Choctaws’ principal reservation in Neshoba County was deemed too far by former Indian Affairs secretary Carl Artman. Other Indian tribes that had sought off-reservation gaming permits from the BIA in 2008 were also denied.
“The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation,” Echo Hawk said in a press release announcing its reversal.
The lifting of that restriction means that, in theory, the Choctaws have been given the green light by the federal government to take preliminary steps toward building and opening a casino in Jackson County. But a provision in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires consent from each state’s governor, and Barbour said last week that he would be opposed to the Choctaws having a gaming presence in Jackson County, the only county on the Coast where casino gambling is prohibited.
In 2007, Jackson County voters approved a nonbinding referendum that stood in opposition to the casino.
“In Mississippi, that should dispose of the issue,” Barbour said. “I have consistently opposed any expansion of gaming beyond the counties where they have it now.”
It was unknown last week what intentions the Choctaws had for Jackson County. Multiple phone messages left with the public information office of the Choctaws’ Tribal Affairs division went unreturned.
To go with Barbour’s approval, the Choctaws would have to hold public comment hearings, and the BIA would have to conclude that the casino would be in the best interests of both the Choctaws and the surrounding community.
Jackson County supervisor John McKay, whose district includes the land owned by the Choctaws, said he had already heard from constituents.
“There’s already opposition, and there’s not even anything to oppose yet. We’ve had no discussion with (the Choctaws). I would anticipate hearing from them eventually, but not in the near future.”
Waiting until Barbour leaves office in January to pursue the project might not change the Choctaws’ luck. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant voiced his opposition to the proposed casino during his campaign in 2007. Bryant spokesperson Mick Bullock said last week that hasn’t changed.
Dave Dennis, one of Bryant’s opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary, also opposes the idea of a casino in Jackson County.
“The citizens of Jackson County have spoken loud and clear that they do not want a casino in their county and as governor I would not authorize such expansion,” he said.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, who’s seeking the governor’s office as a Democrat, echoed Dennis and Bryant.
“As a mayor and a former supervisor, I know the importance of home rule and allowing the people to govern their own communities,” he said. “In most cases, I will defer to the will of the people in local communities. This would be one of those cases.”
One of Dupree’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Bill Luckett, had not responded to a message seeking comment by the Mississippi Business Journal’s press time last week.

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Attorney who argued against damages cap in Mississippi loses identical case in West Virginia

June 23rd, 2011 No comments

A lawyer friend of Magnolia Marketplace just passed along a ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court, in which the justices found that the state’s cap on compensatory damages for noneconomic losses was constitutional.

Like it would in Mississippi, the decision represents a major victory for the business community in West Virginia. What’s most interesting to Mississippi stakeholders, though, is that one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, who argued against the cap, is Robert Peck. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Peck was in Mississippi last week to argue against the state’s $1 million noneconomic damages cap before our supreme court. He used a lot of the same argument in West Virginia as he did here.

The ruling can be found here.

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Viking Classic sponsorship talks on hold until tournament’s end

June 22nd, 2011 No comments

There’s very little that we know for sure about the negotiations to either keep Viking Range Corp. as the title sponsor of the Viking Classic, or to find a new one.

What is certain is that Randy Watkins, tournament director, and his team will not resume talks with anybody until after the tournament is over. The Viking tees off July 11 with the pre-tourney events; the first round starts July 14.

Watkins told Magnolia Marketplace Wednesday morning that the PGA Tour has given him a soft deadline of late August to reach a deal with a title sponsor. How rigid that deadline is unclear, even to Watkins.

“I don’t know because I’ve never pushed it,” he said. “I know we’re aiming at it.”

The Tour will release its full 2012 schedule in November, so it would seem having the title sponsor on board by then would be imperative.

As for who that company is, Watkins offered precious few hints. To go with Viking, the companies Watkins has had negotiations with are household names, he said, and at least some are based in Mississippi. “All I can say is we’re working with (Viking) and others who have expressed interest. I don’t know if it’s unlikely (that Viking will not re-up), but there’s just nothing to be said one way or the other right now.”

This is Viking’s fifth year as the title sponsor. Southern Farm Bureau flew its flag before that; and prior to that, the old Deposit Guaranty bank had its name on the door. Watkins said the total cost — including cash and personnel costs — associated with the title sponsorship is “close to a $1 million.”

The Viking tees off a full two months earlier than it has in recent years. That’s good, Watkins said, because it guarantees all four rounds will be broadcast live by the Golf Channel, and it assures the tournament will be a part of the FedEx Cup.

But the earlier date also constricts by about 100 days the negotiating window Watkins had with potential sponsors. “It would have been nice to have that extra time, but the TV exposure and the FedEx Cup make up for that,” he said.

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