Manufacturing summit set for Mississippi State

March 15th, 2013 No comments

Mississippi manufacturing leaders will assemble next week at Mississippi State to assess the state’s manufacturing sector and kick around ways to grow it.

The third annual Manufacturing Summit is hosted by MSU’s Franklin Furniture Institute and the American Home Furnishings Alliance. It starts at 8:30 the morning of March 27 and runs through 4:30 that afternoon.

On the agenda will be ways to expand Mississippi manufacturing, which currently accounts for 12 percent of non-farm employment, according to state figures. MSU president Mark Keenum will open the event. Gov. Phil Bryant will deliver the keynote address.

The summit will include two panel discussions, one on possible collaborations between manufacturers and federal agencies meant to accelerate industry growth. The other will center on the implications of the Affordable Care Act.

Speakers include representatives from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Appalachian Regional Commission, Delta Regional Authority, MSU faculty experts and leaders of the state’s manufacturing and furniture industries. The program will also touch on global manufacturing competitiveness, consumer buying attitudes and behavior, skilled labor shortages and industry regulations.

Registration is $99 for members of the American Home Furnishings Association and $139 for non-members.  Registration is available online at www.ffi.msstate.edu.

Sponsors of the event include CertiPUR-US, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center and the MSU Extension Service.

Latest deadline has mixed results for business legislation

March 14th, 2013 No comments

Wednesday’s deadline for floor action on bills that originated in the opposite chamber brought mixed results for legislation aimed at the state’s business community.

Of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s legislative agenda, only a bill that would provide a 25 percent rebate to businesses that contract with one of the state’s colleges or universities for qualified research remains alive. The Strengthening Mississippi Academic Research Through (SMART) Business Act would cap rebates at $1 million per business and $5 million per fiscal year. It died in the 2012 session. It has been sent to conference.

Other bills Hosemann supported – tax credits for businesses relocating their headquarters to Mississippi, expanding existing headquarters  and an employee pass-through tax credit – all died for the second consecutive session.

Already signed by Gov. Phil Bryant into law is legislation that that will provide $8 million in additional money to the Workforce Enhancement Training Fund. The WET fund is used by community colleges to provide training for jobs and skills that employers have identified as being in demand.

The money will be generated by a one-year decrease in the unemployment tax businesses pay and a corresponding increase in the WET fund tax. The net effect on employers who pay each tax will be neutral. Also contributing to the additional job training money is $14 million in fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits the Mississippi Department of Employment Security has gotten back.

Bryant signed the bill Wednesday. The measure was supported by the Mississippi chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Legislation directed at the Mississippi Development Authority had mixed results. A bill requiring the agency to issue an annual report of the tax breaks and other incentives it provides to businesses died. Executive director Brent Christensen has said that’s something the agency plans to do anyway, starting with the one issued late last year. Also dead is a bill that would have authorized the MDA to periodically hire consultants to assess the incentives it issues.

Still alive is a measure that would divert money from an MDA fund established to lure Toyota to a workforce training grant fund.

The next hurdle still-active bills face is a conference report deadline on April 4.

Whole Foods’ labeling decision draws criticism

March 12th, 2013 3 comments

Late last week, Whole Foods Market became the first national grocery chain to mandate labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Labeling genetically engineered foods – sometimes called GMO or genetically modified foods – have been ballot issues in a couple western U.S. states, including California and Washington. The measure died last November in California. It will appear on the ballot in Washington this November.

Supporters of the labeling say it’s needed so consumers can know what they’re buying. Supermarket chains opposed the measures, citing legal liability concerns. GMO producers like Monsanto also opposed the measure, disputing claims that the products were unsafe.

Whole Foods will not start labeling GMO in its American and Canadian stores until 2018. The grocer’s Jackson store in Highland Village is currently under construction and is scheduled to open this fall.

Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb said the five year window would make the transition easier on the grocer’s suppliers.

“This is a complicated issue, and we wanted to give our supplier partners enough time to make this change,” he said in a March 8 letter posted on the company’s website. “Fortunately, many of our suppliers are already well on their way to moving to Non-GMO ingredients and a good number are already there. While five years is the deadline, we know there will be progress much sooner and we plan to announce key milestones along the way.”

GMO opponents reacted to Whole Foods’ decision generally unfavorably.

Food Democracy Now, which supported California’s measure and is doing the same in Washington, said Whole Foods should start the labeling process immediately.

“While this is a step in the right direction, Whole Foods’ customers shouldn’t have to wait another half decade to get common sense labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in their products that they sell unlabeled every day,” said Dave Murphy, the organization’s founder. Murphy, who co-chaired the push to pass the ballot measure in California, said its chances of passage would have increased had Whole Foods supported the measure sooner than it did.

Whole Foods’ Jackson location will be the first in Mississippi. Construction started on the 30,000 square-foot store in November.

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Golf numbers nationwide, in Mississippi dip in January

March 8th, 2013 No comments

In a recent issue of the Mississippi Business Journal, the PGA’s PerformanceTrak showed that rounds of golf played nationwide in 2012 were up 6.4 percent over 2011, the largest jump in more than a decade.

Mississippi’s numbers were actually down 13 percent in 2012, but golf entrepreneur Randy Watkins said that his numbers had taken an upswing that was in line with the national data.

Watkins attributed his increase to last year’s mild winter, which allowed golfers to begin their playing year earlier than usual. He also cited an economy that was generally healthier than it had been.

The PGA has released numbers for January 2013, and they tell a different story than the year-end figures. Rounds played for the month were down 12.3 percent. There is a catch, though: days open were down about the same percentage.

The Midwest states had significantly more snow this winter than last. Jackson even had snow that lasted about a half-day, part of an overall weather pattern that had January rounds played in Mississippi down 25 percent. (For comparison, January 2012’s rounds played nationwide were up almost 30 percent over January 2011.) For January, food and beverage revenue was up, while overall revenue was down about 4 percent in 2013 from 2012.

The figures dame from responses from 3,414 golf facilities across the U.S.

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PSC approves multi-year rate plan for Kemper coal plant

March 5th, 2013 No comments

Mississippi Public Service commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to approve a multi-year rate plan for Mississippi Power Co.’s Kemper County coal plant.

Terms of the plan call for the utility to receive $99 million in construction-work-in-progress funds for the rest of 2013. That will create a rate increase between 12 and 13 percent for residential customers who use 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, starting in April. The average residential customer uses about 1,100 kw/h per month, according to PSC figures. Power bills will rise by a little less than $20 per month, according to utility estimates.

In 2014, rates will increase by another 3 percent, bringing the total rate increase associated with CWiP to 15 percent. When Mississippi Power issues bonds to cover costs exceeding $2.4 billion – company CFO Moses Feagin said Monday that would likely happen in late 2014 – rates will jump again. The cumulative rate impact over the life of the seven-year plan and the bond issuance is expected to peak at 22 percent. Those calculations do not include fuel adjustment costs, which could raise or lower rates, depending on the price of fuel.

Mississippi Power, during a hearing that lasted most of Monday afternoon, had asked for more revenue, but Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz said the $99 million figure was appropriate because “we’re in the middle of people’s budget years. I felt that would be the best amount.”

The multi-year rate plan and the bond issuance were part of a settlement between the PSC and the utility that ended litigation brought when regulators denied last summer a 13 percent rate increase for the project. Gov. Phil Bryant signed last week two pieces of legislation that codified the settlement.

The vote on the rate plan came after a public comment hearing that lasted the bulk of Monday morning.  Of the two dozen or so people who spoke, seven were in favor of the project.

One was David Carr, the mayor of Newton, which sits just southwest of the Kemper County site.

“Mississippi Power is our No. 1 economic booster,” Carr said. “They would not have started this plant if they did not think it was in the best interests of customers.”

Most of the objectors had pointed remarks for Bentz and Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey, who has routinely voted for the project. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley has been the lone dissenting vote.

Commenters used a variety of terms to describe Bentz and Posey’s support of the project, suggesting they were subservient to “corporate puppet-masters” and calling the rate increases “corporate fascism.”

After the public comment portion of the hearing, Bentz retaliated.

“It’s very easy to sit back and make accusations that are untrue,” he said to the audience in the PSC’s hearing room. Bentz said a lot of the problems arose from “misinformation” being spread by the media and special interest groups on both sides of the issue.

One of the groups Bentz singled out was the Sierra Club, which has opposed the plant from its inception, calling it expensive and unnecessary.

Louie Miller, executive director of the environmental group’s Mississippi chapter, called the PSC’s approval of the rate plan “shameful” and said it would place an additional burden on Mississippi Power ratepayers who are already struggling financially.

Mississippi Power spokesperson Cindy Duvall called Tuesday’s vote “a huge step forward.”

“The sooner we can get cost recovery for our facility, the less overall cost impact for our customers,” she said. We’re going to go and review the order in its entirety and we’ll determine next steps from there.”

 

Toyota’s sales maintain streak of year-over-year increases

March 1st, 2013 No comments

Toyota Motor Sales USA reported an increase in sales over the prior year for February, though the jump wasn’t quite as big as the last two.

Total sales of Lexus, Toyota and Scion vehicles were 166,377 units in February, up 4.7 percent in volume and 8.7 percent on a daily selling rate from the same period last year. The increase was led by the full-size Avalon sedan (sales up 63 percent) and the crossover RAV 4, whose sales were up 5 percent and recorded its best February ever with 13,329 units sold. Sales of the Corolla, which is made in Blue Springs, increased 12.9 percent.

The modest jump comes after two straight reporting periods that saw increases of more than 20 percent. Overall sales in 2012 were up 26 percent over 2011. Sales for January 2013, which had one more selling day than the prior year, jumped 21.6 percent.

Toyota group vice president and general manager Bill Fay said in a press release that February’s numbers were especially gratifying, because the month had several roadblocks.

“Despite rising gas prices, severe winter storms and concerns about the federal budget, February was a good indication of the overall strength of the market,” Fay said. “With the most fuel efficient full line of vehicles, Toyota is well positioned and we’re encouraged by very positive consumer reaction to our new Avalon and RAV4.”

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Federal appeals court rules state’s tort cap does not violate separation of powers

February 27th, 2013 1 comment

Wednesday morning, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mississippi’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages arising out of civil litigation does not violate the state’s constitutional separation of powers.

The question arose out of a personal injury case in federal court in Aberdeen. Plaintiff Lisa Learmonth was involved in a wreck with a Sears van and was awarded $4 million by a jury. The award was modified by the presiding judge to conform with the cap. Learmonth’s attorneys appealed that modification to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the cap established by the Legislature infringed on a jury’s right to decide how much should be awarded to whom. The Fifth Circuit kicked the issue in 2011 to the Mississippi Supreme court, asking justices to decide if the cap was constitutional.

The state court last August passed on deciding the issue, saying in a 7-1 decision that doing so would be to engage in speculation. The Fifth Circuit asked for briefs on the issue in October, which led to Wednesday’s ruling.

The cap was the centerpiece of tort reform legislation passed in 2004. Business groups, their membership and their political allies said the cap would make sure liability insurance premiums for businesses would remain predictable and not be cost-prohibitive.

The same groups said the cap would repair Mississippi’s reputation as a “judicial hell hole,” in which certain jurisdictions had become known for producing large jury verdicts against defendants in civil cases.

“Today is a good day for businesses across Mississippi because the Fifth Circuit has upheld an important protection against unpredictable and excessive damage awards,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. “The Fifth Circuit Court’s ruling reinforces the rule of law and bolsters our continued push to make Mississippi the most job-friendly state in the nation.”

While the ruling seems to slam the door on overturning the cap based on the separation of powers, it might have left it open to a challenge based on another constitutional argument.

Toward the end of the 25-page opinion, Judge Carolyn Dineen King writes that Learmonth’s attorneys “overlooked the possibility that, at least under some circumstances, the Mississippi Constitution’s Due Process Clause or Remedy Clause might impose substantive constraints on the legislature’s authority to cap compensatory damages.”

Due process prevents the taking of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The Remedy Clause contains two guarantees: that courts be open, and that those injured have a remedy by due course of the law.

To read the entire opinion, click here.

Alabama Senate panel tries to squeeze Airbus jobs out of Miss., Florida

February 26th, 2013 No comments

When Mobile, Ala., was selected as the site for a $600 million Airbus manufacturing facility, there was optimism that South Mississippi could land a supplier or two.

The Alabama Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday made that less likely when members advanced legislation that would limit lawsuits against aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers. The bill would establish a 12-year window on litigation related to aircraft with more than 100 seats. The clock would start once the aircraft is delivered. Alabama law currently puts no such restriction on aircraft-related litigation. In Mississippi, there is a 20-year statute of repose, in which no litigation pertaining to an aircraft is allowed even if a design or other kind of defect leads to an injury or a fatality.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told the Associated Press in that state that the legislation is specifically designed to keep Airbus suppliers out of Mississippi and Florida. Suppliers are estimated to create nearly 4,000 jobs.

The three states were part of an alliance that pursued the massive project a few years ago. The manufacturing facility, which will employ 1,000 at full production, is scheduled to start operation in 2015. Officials estimate it will produce between 40 and 50 aircraft per year by 2018.

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Report: Levees prevented $234 billion in damages in 2011 flood

February 25th, 2013 No comments

The levees along the Mississippi River and its backwater tributaries generally did what they were supposed to do during the 2011 flood.

In the process, they prevented $234 billion in damages.

Those were two major takeaways from a pair of documents the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released Monday.

Data collection for The Mississippi River & Tributaries 2011 Post-Flood Report and Room for the River started in August 2011, about two months after the worst of the record-breaking flood, and concluded last December. The 350-page MR&T report documents the levees’ performance during the flood, and recommends ways to re-strengthen and improve the system. Room for the River is a 32-page summary of what the Vicksburg office of the Corps calls “facts, figures and lessons” officials learned during the high-water event.

Both documents can be viewed here.

On the whole, Corps officials said during and after the flood that the levee system – constructed after the 1927 flood whose water-level records the 2011 flood surpassed – did what it was designed to do. These two documents, they say, provide data to validate that claim.

The impact in Mississippi stretched almost the length of the state’s western border, formed by the river. Flooding shuttered casinos in Tunica, closed river operations in Greenville and Vicksburg and inundated farmland in the South Delta along the Yazoo River.

Aerospace group: Sequestration could cost Mississippi 11,000 jobs

February 22nd, 2013 No comments

The list of potential damage estimates attached to sequestration continues to grow.

Friday, the Aerospace Industries Association said that if the automatic spending cuts set to trigger March 1 actually happen, it could cost Mississippi 11,000 jobs and almost $1.2 billion in gross state product.

Spending cuts have been pegged at $1.2 trillion over a decade, a lot of it coming out of the defense budget that funds aerospace initiatives like Hancock County’s Stennis Space Center.

AIA president and CEO Marion Blakey said in a press release that this weekend’s meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington serves as a good opportunity for state chief executives to illustrate the effects sequestration will have on state economies.

“With little time to act, this weekend provides states the opportunity to make their voices heard at the White House and in Congress, where leaders have yet to begin serious negotiations about avoiding an economic nightmare that will have a negative impact nationwide.”

The AIA issued a report last summer that said sequestration would result in more than 2 million overall jobs being lost in defense, construction, education, healthcare and manufacturing sectors.

The AIA’s alarmism isn’t shared by former Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour, who left office in 2012, told a cable news channel earlier this week that he hoped congressional Republicans would allow sequestration to go through, saying it was the only way to “start down a path of trying to get control of spending and reduce the deficit.”

The automatic spending cuts were part of the 2011 debt ceiling compromise the White House and Congress brokered. The cuts were designed to be so severe that it would force lawmakers – specifically, the GOP-controlled House – to work out a deal with President Obama and his allies in the Democratic-led Senate.

The two sides haven’t gotten far in negotiations, and others are starting to share Barbour’s belief that it’s likely the cuts will go into effect.