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No special session this week? (Updated)

October 28th, 2009 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace just got off the phone with one lawmaker who doesn’t plan to be in Jackson Friday for a special session to deal with a manufacturer who plans to build a facility in the Delta. According to speculation, a German maker of steel pipes would like to build a $300 million plant in Tunica, creating 500 jobs.

Gov. Haley Barbour announced last week at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob that he would call legislators to Jackson this week to offer the company a state-backed incentive package. Barbour has said state incentives would represent no more than 10 percent of the total cost of the project.

“That is correct,” said one lawmaker, who requested anonymity, when asked if the special session had been delayed. “The deal isn’t dead. They’re still trying to make it work, but it won’t be in time for anything to happen this week.” The lawmaker added the hold-up did not originate from the state or county level, but from the company.

Barbour spokesman Dan Turner would not comment.

Updated at 12:03 p.m. : A source who had just been briefed on the situation said it was a “coin flip” as to whether there would be a special session Friday.

Updated again at 1:12 p.m. : Barbour has just released a statement confirming that there will be no special session this week. In the statement, Barbour said the issue was not between the state and the company. Here is the full text of his statement:

The Special Session planned for Friday, October 30, has been postponed due to a technical issue unrelated to the proposed agreement between the company and the State.

“The company needs additional time to complete its preparations for executing the project, and we expect to call the Legislature in for a brief Special Session as soon as these preparations are complete.

“It is this Administration’s policy not to present projects to the Legislature until all details are finalized, even if the unresolved point is not between the company and the state.”

Barbour confirms special session for next week

October 21st, 2009 15 comments

Gov. Haley Barbour confirmed at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob this morning that he will call lawmakers to Jackson for a special session late next week to deal with an economic development project in the Delta. The project, Barbour said, is a $300 million advanced manufacturing deal that will crete 500 jobs. He didn’t offer any other details.

Obviously, the first thing that leaped to Magnolia Marketplace’s mind was GreenTech, the Chinese start-up that wants to build hybrid cars in Tunica. The job count or the cost Barbour announced doesn’t match, though. GreenTech’s first phase will cost $1 billion, according to the company, and create 1,500 jobs.

Speculation after Barbour’s announcement centered around some sort of steel manufacturing facility. Really, without somebody coming out and saying it, it will be hard to tell exactly what Barbour has up his sleeve. But Magnolia Marketplace is sure going to try to find out.

Updated at 1:02 p.m. : Just wrapped up a conversation with a source who requested anonymity, and who said that all signs point toward an automotive-related project in Tunica, but not GreenTech. Rather, the source said, an auto parts manufacturer is planning to set up shop. There were no details available as to the name of the company or if it was affiliated with either of the state’s current automotive manufacturers, Nissan or Toyota.

Special session on the way?

October 20th, 2009 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace has had a hard time getting anybody in state government to acknowledge the existence of GreenTech Automotive, the hybrid car manufacturer that has plans to build a facility in Tunica. Getting a comment on the record, to this point, has been impossible.

That trend continued this afternoon. There have been whispers the past few days that there was a special session in the works whose call would include GreenTech. Dan Turner, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, said he had heard of some “discussions” regarding a special session but would not confirm or deny whether the agenda, which Barbour would control, would include GreenTech. For that matter, Turner did not confirm or deny there would even be a special session.

“There’s just not much I can tell you,” he said.

So that’s where we are. Magnolia Marketplace will be at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob tomorrow. Barbour is scheduled to speak. We’ll ask him about it then.

Hudson Holliday lays out his platform

October 16th, 2009 No comments

First-term Pearl River County District 3 Supervisor Hudson Holliday retired from the Mississippi Army National Guard in 2004 as a one-star general.

His campaign for the Republican nomination for governor is less than a week old, but he’s already bringing a military style to it. It could be summed up in three words.

Ready.

“I feel compelled to do it,” Holliday said.

Aim.

“I really do think that people are fed up with professional politicians,” he continued.

Fire.

“Phil Bryant was a deputy sheriff (before serving in the Legislature and then being appointed to the State Auditor’s office). What does he know? He’s never created the first job. He has never hired anybody. He’s never paid workman’s comp insurance on anybody. He’s never had to deal with withholdings or regulations. Now he’s been in Jackson (for several years). He’s just moved up that political ladder. What does he know about that contractor that’s out there in the mud trying to build a building? He’s never been there.”

Then Holliday reloaded.

“What in the world does Tate Reeves know about what’s going on out in the (rural areas)? He’s a bean counter. Did he ever serve in the military?”

Spokespersons for Bryant and Reeves did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Holliday’s campaign will attempt to draw a contrast between him and Bryant, the lieutenant governor who has said he will seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2011; and Reeves, the Republican state treasurer who has not committed one way or the other as far as 2011 goes but is thought to a strong possibility for the governor’s race.

In about a 22-minute conversation with Magnolia Marketplace this morning, Holliday touted his experience in the small business world. His background is diverse. He has owned and operated a construction company, developed subdivisions as a homebuilder, established a crop-dusting service, farmed and run a timber-cutting business.

He also served as a deputy sheriff under his brother, the former sheriff of Pearl River County.

“There’s not a whole lot that goes on in Mississippi that I don’t understand,” Holliday, 65, said. “I’ll just be honest with you, I’m tired. I’m tired of us leaving our future up to professional politicians that too often, not all of them, are more concerned about their future than they are ours. They’re just looking for the next ladder to climb instead of making hard decisions.”

Holliday said he’s mulled over the idea of running for governor for about six months. He will run as a Republican, he said, but he’s “not proud of either one of the parties. I think they’re the downfall of this country, to tell you the truth. I’m not sure a Democrat could be elected in a governor’s race.

“I believe good government suffers when good people don’t get involved. I’m going to get involved. I’m not going to sit at the house and complain about the way things are when I know I can do something about it.”

Holliday was elected to his current post last year. It was the first time he had jumped into the political arena. He realizes that name recognition and fundraising ability will be major issues against opponents who have plenty of both.

He’s depending on his time in the military to spread the word about his candidacy.

“When I was in the Guard, I had units from Southaven to Pascagoula, from West Point to Vicksburg, all those units reported to me,” Holliday said. “They know who I am. The Guard won’t elect you, but it is a seed source that I can expand to just about every community in this state. I assure you the Guard will be behind me 100 percent. That opens doors for me to come into North Mississippi.”

Magnolia Marketplace was unable to confirm Holliday’s assertion that he is the first sitting county supervisor to seek the governor’s office. He hopes his experience with the ground level of politics will gain him the support of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.

“That’s the political leaders in every county,” he said. “The majority of supervisors are Democrat. If I could get through the Republican nomination I will pick up a lot of the Democratic supervisors. They realize that I understand the problems that they face.”

The role of governor, Holliday believes, should be built around two things: Developing a vision for the state and providing the leadership to get there. If the state were a group of folks walking through the woods in the dark, he said, the governor should be the one holding a flashlight.

“You’re destined to look where the guy that has the flashlight is shining the light. His job is to lead us out of the woods and onto the highway of prosperity.”

An antique car enthusiast, Holliday is already rebuilding a 1942 International pickup and plans to outfit it with campaign billboards in time to drive it across the state visiting coffee shops, cafes, truck stops and restaurants and community festivals.

“I’m never gonna have the money Phil Bryant and those guys are going to have,” Holliday said. “It’s going to be a battle but I think people are hungry. I’m one of us. That’s the message.”

New GOP candidate for governor?

October 15th, 2009 No comments

A few weeks ago I wrote a story taking a look at some of the names that have surfaced as candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2011 governor’s race. The consensus from everybody I talked to was that Gulfport businessman Dave Dennis and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant were sure things, and that a few statewide office-holders like Treasurer Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and State Auditor Stacey Pickering were possibilities.

Now comes news that Pearl River County Supervisor Hudson Holliday has plans to enter the fray. Holliday is quoted in the Picayune Item as saying he’s “fed up with professional politicians.” Obviously, Holliday has an uphill climb to garner name recognition outside Pearl River County, which entails raising piles of money. At the very least, he will be hard to forget. Hudson Holliday could easily have been the name of a Wild West character. Get the full story here.

Categories: Elections, News, Politics Tags:

State revenues down 10 percent in September

October 1st, 2009 No comments

State Economist Dr. Phil Pepper told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee a week ago today that the long-term revenue outlook for the state was not very good.

The short-term forecast looks positively dreadful.

September tax collection numbers surfaced today, and they aren’t pretty. Overall, the state brought in $404.9 million last month, 10 percent under revenue estimates officials made only three months ago. The total shortfall for the month was just short of $45 million.

August offered a sliver of hope that the trend of monthly revenue shortages could be coming to an end. Gov. Haley Barbour said then the Cash for Clunkers program probably had a lot to do with August revenue falling only about 2 percent short of estimates.

September’s sales tax figures were $13.6 million, or almost 9 percent, under estimates, bolstering Barbour’s argument that Cash for Clunkers artificially inflated August sales tax collections. Individual income tax collections in September were almost 14 percent, or $22.7 million, short of what the Revenue Estimating Group, of which Pepper is a member, thought they would be.

Barbour has already made cuts to the fiscal year 2010 budget, slashing $172 million from K-12 education spending on Sept. 3. Barbour, who is in the middle of a two and a half week economic development trip to Asia, has said since then that more cuts are almost a guarantee. For the first quarter of FY10, revenue is already $77 million (more than 7.5 percent) shy of expectations. Judging from September’s revenue, trimming the budget will be at the top of Barbour’s to-do list when he returns home.

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Janus resigns from House

September 28th, 2009 No comments

Rep. Michael Janus, R-Biloxi, has resigned from the Mississippi House to start his new job as city manager of D’Iberville.

State law prohibited Janus from serving in the Legislature and as D’Iberville’s city manager at the same time, so his resignation took effect this morning at 7:59, one minute before he started his new job.

Janus had served as the representative of District 117 in Harrison County since 1996. His committee memberships included insurance, ways and means, ports, harbors and airports, management, public health and human services and public utilities. Janus told a Gulf Coast television station that one of his first official acts as city manger will be to attend a ribbon cutting for the opening of a retail center. Janus has an economic development. He was a mortgage broker when he wasn’t at the Capitol.

In a letter to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Janus said he was “returning home to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast, in a very real sense Mississippi is also my home and I shall always stand ready to serve should the time or need arise.”

Gov. Haley Barbour will set a special election to fill the open seat.

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IHL confronts fiscal reality

September 24th, 2009 No comments

“We are not here to moan and cry.”

That was College Board President Scott Ross’ opening line to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee this morning as the Institutions of Higher Learning presented its FY2011 budget request. The JLBC has spent this week telling state agencies that money is slim and could get slimmer before the next fiscal year begins next July.

IHL submitted a request that is $42.8 million more than it received in FY2010. Seventeen million dollars of that will pay for a cost of living adjustment that will allow for colleges and universities to keep the purchasing power it has as the price of goods and services rises, IHL Commissioner Dr. Hank Bounds told lawmakers.

The bulk of the rest of the additional funding is made up of $21 million for the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“Our big need is to increase our school size,” said interim UMC Chancellor Dr. James Keeton. UMC has 120 medical students, which is all the school can handle with its current size and resources, Keeton said. “We would like to grow that to 150.” While the extra $21 million wouldn’t cover the full cost of growing the student body to 150, it would be a start, Keeton said.

In a nod to the state’s dwindling tax revenue, Bounds said he has talked with all eight university presidents about the idea of consolidating some functions like purchasing, the contract 403(b) notification requirement administration and the IRS 125 administration.

“They are all open to that,” Bounds said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said he was “stunned” at that announcement, since the consolidation of any state service has long been a subject most lawmakers and state agencies have refused to even discuss.

“We can’t afford to wake up three or four years from now and have mediocre programs,” Bounds said. “We have to think differently. We also recognize that if all (economic) prognosticators are accurate, we could see some really tough days ahead.”

Bounds did not have a cost savings estimate consolidation of some functions might provide. He did say that IHL is preparing to receive fewer state funds in future budget years, and that there is a plan in place to operate the system in such an event.

The budget Bounds and other officials presented Thursday morning, which totals $841.5 million, is about $200 million less than the budget they originally planned to present. The first budget, Bounds said, would have brought funding for Mississippi’s colleges and universities up to the Southeastern average.

Bounds spent a several minutes selling higher education as a driver of economic development in Mississippi.

“I really believe we can only educate ourselves out of the financial crisis,” he said. “It is absolutely clear that if Mississippi is going to move forward we have to produce a better-educated citizenry.”

Mississippi needs more graduates who fall into the STEM category — Science, Technology, Education and Math, Bounds said.

The funds available for the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant, which awards $500 per semester to entering freshman who have at least a 15 on the ACT and a 2.5 GPA, are low. The funds are at the same level they were in 2000, but the number of students who are eligible has seen “an appreciable gain,” Bounds said.

With state money in a sharp decline and enrollment up at nearly every institution, Bounds could not rule out tuition increases to make up the difference.

“We will do everything that we can (to prevent tuition increases),” Bounds said. “But I can’t guarantee they won’t go up.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, told Bounds he would do “all I can” to get IHL’s budget funded at the level it requested.

The IHL’s presentation took up the vast majority of this morning’s hearings. Afterward, the Mississippi Development Authority presented a budget request of $22.6 million, which is the same amount it got in FY10. The MDA’s state funding has been basically level since 2003. Federal money makes up most of its budget.

“We cannot afford to lose momentum right now,” MDA Executive Director Gray Swoope told the Committee.

Swoope said that Nissan continues to fulfill the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the state regarding direct job numbers — the company employs about 3,100 people directly — and Toyota is still “fully committed to Mississippi. They are going to build vehicles in Blue Springs.”

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More numbers and a big charge end day three of budget hearings

September 23rd, 2009 No comments

The third day of budget hearings featured three fiscal heavyweights, piles and piles of numbers and one serious allegation from Division of Medicaid executive director Dr. Robert Robinson.

Robinson and his team presented a budget request that is roughly $201.9 million more than the $451.3 million the agency received in FY10.

As big as those figures are, that wasn’t the most explosive part of Medicaid’s time before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Once lawmakers and Medicaid staffers finished haggling over the numbers — most of the increase depends on the state replacing federal stimulus money — Robinson was asked by Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, about fraud and abuse in the Medicaid system.

Robinson said the fraud among the 609,000 beneficiaries is negligible. But on the provider side, he said, it’s rampant.

“Behavioral health centers are wearing us out,” Robinson said. Robinson, without naming the place, mentioned one behavioral health outfit that received $24 million in Medicaid reimbursements it should not have gotten.

He wasn’t done. “We can’t get anybody to prosecute them,” Robinson said, adding his agency had presented evidence of the wrongdoing but had been turned down by the U.S. attorney’s office and state Attorney General Jim Hood.

“Bob, you and I have been friends for a long time but I just don’t believe state or federal prosecutors wouldn’t have time to track down $20 million,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said at the beginning a lengthy and incredulous rant at Robinson’s assertion. “Hell, we’ve got 40 people that can work on it. I’ll get to the bottom of it personally.”

The Medicaid presentation was the most lively part of a dry, numbers-based day of budget hearings at the Woolfolk Building.

The State Board of Community and Junior Colleges requested $64.7 million in additional funding for FY11, to bring the system into compliance with state law that requires spending on community and junior college students to be in the middle of per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools students and per-pupil spending on students at Jackson State University, Delta State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. Another $13.8 million would fund a dropout recovery initiative that was given $1.5 million in FY10, bringing the total increase to $78.5 million and the total budget request to $331.4 million.

Dr. Eric Clark, former secretary of state and current executive director of the SBCJC, spent several minutes after the financial parameters had been laid out to lawmakers advocating the mid-level funding law legislators passed in 2007.

“It’s a good law,” Clark said. “It passed unanimously in the House and the Senate and (Gov. Haley Barbour) signed it. It’s a moral obligation just like MAEP. I’m asking you to make it a priority.”

Clark said community colleges provide crucial workforce development programs potential businesses and industry require before they set up shop in Mississippi. “We’re growing the pie,” he said.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, told Clark it would be “difficult” to get the full $13.8 million. “But I didn’t intend for this  year’s money ($1.5 million) to be the end, either,” he said.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson asked for an 8.4 percent budget increase. The $15 million would fund a trooper school to replenish the Highway Patrol’s personnel. Simpson said 71 troopers have either left or retired from DPS since November 2007. House Appropriations chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said it would be “real hard” to operate a trooper school in FY11 and proposed that troopers who have already retired be allowed to work part-time, similar to what a lot of Mississippi teachers do, as a cheaper alternative than a trooper school to raise staffing levels.

The budget increase would also go toward the Mississippi Crime Laboratory and the state law enforcement academy, along with upgrades to DPS’ outdated computer technology, Simpson said.

The Mississippi Public Service Commission and the Mississippi Gaming Commission each submitted requests that contained no additional funding. Joel Bennett, of the PSC’s finance division, told lawmakers that the Commission “respectfully reserves the right” to alter its budget request after the legislative session starts in January.

“I think they’re all adjustable,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said.

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Department of Education makes pitch to JLBC

September 23rd, 2009 No comments

A quick recap of this morning’s proceedings at the Woolfolk Building as the Joint Legislative Budget Committee continues to hear budget requests from state agencies.

As expected, the presentation by interim State Superintendent of Education Dr. Daniel Jordan and Board of Education President Bill Jones drew the largest crowd yet in the JLBC’s hearing room.

The numbers: Education is asking for an increase of $173 million over FY10 funding. That figure operates on the assumption that about $160 million in federal stimulus money that was appropriated this year will be available next year. Without it, the increase would rise to roughly $330 million. Those numbers fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, whose full-funding number rose $47 million from last year, add ons like the National Board Certification teacher salary supplements and a 3 percent pay raise for all teachers.

“No one is naive about the (revenue) situation,” Jones said. “The numbers are what they are.”

“We understand these are critical times,” Jordan said.

MAEP’s total figure was broken down into two categories: $97 million that was made up of $61 million for full funding in FY11 and $36 million in the restoration of funds that were diverted from the program the past 10 years. The remaining $66 million of the program would fund teacher recruitment initiatives, the high school redesign program and the 3 percent teacher pay raise.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, asked Jones which of the two facets of MAEP held more priority — the base funding or the add ons.

“That’s like asking me which child I want to shoot,” Jones said.

“Well, you may have to,” Flaggs responded, adding he would “lay his life on the line” to ensure the $97 million base formula was fulfilled.

Several lawmakers brought up the idea of school consolidation as a means for the state to trim some of the $2.3 billion cost from the education budget. Consolidation has traditionally been a political hot potato.

“Find me two schools that want to merge with each other and we’ll do it,” Jones said.

After education presented its budget request, the hearing room held a much smaller crowd to hear Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell asked for $9.5 million for FY11 — the exact figure his office got in FY10. Spell noted that since he took office in 1996, his staff had shrunk from 362 folks to 251, while his budget had grown from $8.5 to $9.5 million.

State money makes up about 61 percent of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s total budget, with federal money filling in the rest.

Because the JLBC was about 20 minutes late starting this morning, the Public Service Commission’s presentation was pushed to 1:15. Magnolia Marketplace will have the details as soon as they are available.

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