Davis talks budget, redistricting at Stennis luncheon

March 7th, 2011 No comments

Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said Monday he was “a little bit surprised” at Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant submitting his own redistricting plan late last week.

Davis was the speaker at the monthly lunch meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps in Jackson.

Bryant’s move came after the Senate Congressional Redistricting Committee and its chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton, had earlier passed a plan of its own. Davis said the Senators would take up one of the plans when they gavel in Monday afternoon. Whether it’s Bryant’s or Newton’s is anybody’s guess.

“From speaking with some senior members of the Senate, I’ve gathered that this is the first time the process has been handled this way,” Davis said, referring to the dueling redistricting proposals.

We should note that Davis didn’t sound like he was criticizing Bryant; he was, in our view, just pointing out the unique situation the Senate finds itself in. How that shakes out should make for fascinating political theater.

On the budget side, Davis wouldn’t commit to many specific numbers, but he did say that Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a bill that would have funded community colleges at the level they asked for was a good idea. “It’s entirely too early,” Davis said, to dole out money when budget-writers don’t have a crystal clear picture on what the revenue situation will be.

Each of the state’s K-12 districts can expect the same amount of funding in FY 2012 as they received in FY 2011, Davis said. “Budgeting in an election year during good times is difficult,” he said. “Budgeting in a recession and an election year and having to go through redistricting is a challenge the legislature hasn’t gone through in many, many years.”

Swoope set the bar

March 1st, 2011 1 comment

Magnolia Marketplace talks to a lot of economic developers, mostly because whatever story we’re working on requires their input.

Some are easy to track down. Some are almost never available. Some we like personally and professionally. Some we can barely tolerate no matter the context.

The folks who fall in that latter category usually end up there because the only time they make themselves available for an interview is when the subject matter allows them to beat their chests — for example, their area just landed a huge project and they want to make sure they’re at the front of the credit-claiming line. When the questions aren’t so easy, though, they’re impossible to find; and if we can find them, they have absolutely nothing to say.

In our more than three years at the MBJ, we never had that problem with Gray Swoope. Swoope is the executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority who is heading to Florida to lead economic development efforts in that state. Gov. Haley Barbour was exactly right when he said in a statement that Florida’s gain is Mississippi’s loss.

If we needed to talk to Swoope, he found time for us, and not only when the subject matter allowed him to gloat, which he never did anyway. In fact, the last interview we had with him, Swoope was traveling and had pulled his car to the side of the road so he wouldn’t have to drive and talk on his cell phone. Once, he was in Paris at an airshow as part of the effort to land the doomed, politically rigged Air Force tanker contract for Mobile and South Mississippi, but still found time to answer questions via email.

Swoope got it. He knew dealing with media was a part of his job, so he did it and didn’t farm it out to his PR team or hide behind an assistant. He was available and honest.

Here’s hoping his successor shares those traits.

RNC Chairman: GOP leading the way in “battle for freedom”

February 22nd, 2011 No comments

New Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was in Jackson Tuesday afternoon visiting with Gov. Haley Barbour and other party VIPs.

He held a short press conference with Barbour, who was once RNC chair, at the state GOP headquarters. In his opening remarks, Priebus wasted no time in revealing what he thinks is at stake in the latest political fight between Republicans and Democrats.

“I believe we’re in a battle for freedom, and Republicans are leading the way,” he said of the budget brawl in which congressional GOP leadership have engaged President Obama.

The continuing resolution that is currently funding the federal government expires March 4, but Priebus wouldn’t speculate on the possibility of a government shutdown should no extension or long-term funding agreement be reached before then.

“The only people talking about a shutdown are the Democrats,” he said.

Priebus spent about nine minutes of the 10-minute press conference discussing the federal funding situation and the awful mess in his home state of Wisconsin over the collective bargaining rights of public workers, and the political holy war that has broken out between unions and Gov. Scott Walker.

“All (Walker is) asking for is just a little bit of help from the state employee unions to pay 12 percent on their healthcare benefits and 5 percent on their pension benefits, which is half of what everyone else is Wisconsin is doing,” Priebus said.

Priebus was a little less verbose when he was asked to lay odds on Barbour’s chances in 2012.

“I look up to and admire Gov. Barbour, but at the end of the day we’re going to have a lot of great (GOP) candidates,” he said. “Whether it’s Gov. Barbour or another candidate, we’ll have a lot of great choices.”

The only real news came when Barbour said he had not had a chance to read either of the two major bills to clear the Legislature recently — the payday lending legislation and the open meetings reform bill. Without giving them a once-over, Barbour said, he couldn’t commit to signing them or not signing them.


Categories: Elections, Haley Barbour, News, Politics Tags:

Plenty of funding, but lots of competition, for East Miss. rail link

February 21st, 2011 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace has a story in this week’s MBJ about a push by East Mississippi economic development officials to secure funding for environmental and design work related to building a 50-mile rail link from Waynesboro to Lucedale.

The link, folks from the Rail Authority of East Mississippi say, would provide rail transportation for the region’s biomass to the Port of Pascagoula, making it cheaper and easier to get the product to Europe, which has a huge demand for it.

Anyway, Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker had inserted $1 million into a highway funding bill that would have paid about half the cost of the planning work. It was an earmark, and it has since been excluded, along with the rest of the surface transportation funding pool from which it was drawn, from the continuing resolution that will fund the federal government through March 4.

The response from Cochran’s office was a few hours late to make it into the print edition, but here’s what he said in a press release he sent us Thursday night:

“Until the Congress completes its work on the FY2011 appropriations process, there will be uncertainty as to what federal transportation and rail programs might be used for the East Mississippi Rail Corridor proposal.  It is probably safe to surmise that the funding will be reduced and that the competition for those dollars will be intense.  I continue to support the effort by local officials who are trying to improve their economic prospects with better rail infrastructure service in southeast Mississippi.”

The long-term CR for FY 2011 that is currently being debated includes $15 million for the Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Line Relocation and Improvement Program. That could be one funding source for the project. When that CR is approved, and if that railroad money is still there in the final version, is anybody’s guess, though.

Applications for the $1.5 billion TIGER program that was a part of 2009’s stimulus bill is another option, but competition for that money is robust, to say the least.

Bottom line: Plenty of money is available for the East Mississippi rail project. But securing it is not going to be easy, and is going to require quite a bit of political muscle from Cochran and the rest of Mississippi’s congressional delegation.



Categories: Economic development, News, Politics Tags:

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: