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Barbour makes the call: It’s a biofuel company

August 24th, 2010 4 comments

Gov. Haley Barbour has issued the call for Friday’s special session, so let’s get right to it:

Among other things, Barbour will ask lawmakers to issue $45 million in general obligation bonds to a company that will produce renewable crude oil using biomass harvested here in Mississippi.

Biomass is a natural material used to produce energy. It can range from wood chips to grass to animal waste.

Barbour does not name the company or any of its locations — he said last week it would have multiple facilities — in the call, so we’ll just have to wait until Friday to learn those particulars.

To go with the $45 million that will defray some of the construction costs and equipment purchases, lawmakers will be asked to issue an additional $4 million in GOBs that will pay for workforce training related to the project, a program that will be administered by the Mississippi Development Authority. The actual training will be done by Mississippi’s colleges and universities and community colleges.

We’re still not done. Barbour also wants an additional $1 million in GOBs to fund research on biomass usage in the production of renewable crude oil at the Sustainable Energy Research Center at Mississippi State.

All told, that represents a $50 million investment by the state in the $500 million project that is expected to create 1,000 jobs.

Also included in the call is an authorization that will allow the City of D’Iberville to acquire property for development, and an authorization allowing DeSoto County to build a new jail.

It all gets started Friday at 10 a.m.

Finally, special session confirmation (Updated)

August 20th, 2010 No comments

A few weeks ago, Magnolia Marketplace spent most of a Friday chasing a rumor that Gov. Haley Barbour was set to call a special session for Aug. 13, in which lawmakers would consider incentive packages for an economic development project.

The rumor turned out to be partially right.

In a press release that landed in our inbox minutes ago, Barbour confirmed that he will summon the Legislature to the Capitol next Friday, Aug. 27, to consider an inventive package for a $500 million project.

According to the release, whatever company is asking for the incentives will have locations across the state, and will provide $85 million in wages and direct purchases and supply 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through the company and its suppliers.

“Additional information about the company will be released at a later date,” the release read.

When we were first tracking the rumor, speculation ranged from a project in the Delta to one in Meridian. Theoretically, if the company will have multiple locations in the state, both of those regions could be involved. Or neither of them.

Here’s the press release from Barbour’s office:

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour today announced a special session at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 27, to consider an incentive package for a $500 million economic development project with locations around the state.

The project will bring $85 million in wages and direct Mississippi purchases, as well as 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through the company and the local suppliers. Additional information about the company will be released at a later date.

UPDATE: Just got off the phone with Dan Turner, Barbour’s press secretary, to ask one or two follow-up questions.

The first and most obvious: What’s the name of the company? Turner didn’t blink. “No comment,” he said. No surprise there. Barbour is the master at keeping things close to the vest until he — and only he — is ready to make it official. “We’re sticking to that policy,” Turner said.

Turner did offer somewhat of a hint about what kind of jobs the project will bring. “I think this one is tailor-made as far as jobs that have a long-range future in Mississippi.”

Since he’s been in office, Barbour has said advanced manufacturing jobs are what suits Mississippi best, things like Toyota and aerospace and the steel plants that have cropped up in the Golden Triangle. Turner’s “long-range future” description of this latest deal sure sounds like that.

Water issues inflame old tensions

August 18th, 2010 No comments

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and Gov. Haley Barbour have engaged in a letter-writing war over the State Bond Commission’s refusal to issue $6 million in bonds to improve the city’s water system.

Twice this year, all or parts of Jackson have gone without water service due to problems with the pipes. In January, a hard freeze left most of the city without for several days. Portable restrooms were placed outside the Capitol for lawmakers in session. The MBJ offices set up temporary shop in a Madison hotel. Earlier this summer, a relatively new water main burst at the main treatment facility, cutting off service for several hours, mainly in the northern part of the city. Magnolia Marketplace’s house was one of the ones affected.

Johnson is miffed that the Bond Commission, of which Barbour is the chairman, voted against the $6 million bond project, even though the Legislature passed it and Barbour signed it as part of an omnibus bond program this past session. Barbour countered that the $6 million alone amounted to a drop in the bucket when it came to the overall cost of repairing and upgrading Jackson’s water infrastructure, and encouraged Johnson to seek a low-interest loan through the Department of Environmental Quality.

This latest conflict raises anew the decades-old tension between Jackson and state government. The majority of Downtown Jackson is made up of state buildings, which pay no property taxes but receive city services.

There have been a few attempts by Jackson officials over the years to institute a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program to help offset some of the costs the city incurs in providing services to those state buildings. They have gotten nowhere. It’s a hard sell for a North Mississippi lawmaker to spend money on something that won’t benefit his constituents.

Budgets at every level of government are shrinking, a symptom of the depression. Lawmakers, especially with an election year coming up, are averse to any kind of new spending that might lead to a tax increase. On the other hand, Jackson is running a budget deficit and could surely use the money.

This water flap will most likely get resolved. If it doesn’t, you can take this to the bank: If and when the water pipes burst this winter, Barbour and Johnson will blame each other. Meanwhile, the rest of us will suffer.

Political battle lines forming over jobs bill

August 11th, 2010 3 comments

It didn’t take long for Gov. Haley Barbour to express his displeasure over the $26 billion state-aid legislation President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.

In a press release his office issued Aug. 9, Barbour said the bill would force Mississippi’s budget into a re-write in order for the state to accept the $98 million for public education and $130 million for Medicaid.

The state’s budget for fiscal year 2011 has been set since June. Proponents of the bill claim it will rehire laid off teachers or keep those teetering on the edge of unemployment in the classroom. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, and Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, voted for it. Gene Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, and Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, voted against it. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker both voted against it.

“There is no justification for the federal government hijacking state budgets, but that is exactly what Congress has done,” Barbour said in his statement.

So does that mean Barbour will call lawmakers back to Jackson to reconfigure the budget?

Not necessarily, said Barbour spokesman Dan Turner. The state has the option to decline the education money, or show a “maintenance of effort” to work it into the budget without having to redo the whole thing.

Which is the best option?

“Too soon to say,” Turner said.

The notion of whether to accept one-time federal money for a specific state expense got a lot of political run about a year and a half ago, when the original stimulus bill included for Mississippi $56 million for extended unemployment benefits. Barbour and several other Republican governors refused to take it. Democrats wailed. It’s likely a similar scenario will play out this time around.

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

PR 101: Confront the truth, no matter how ugly it is

July 26th, 2010 No comments

One of Magnolia Marketplace’s favorite movies is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the ’80s flick that makes rebelling against authority look like a whole lot of fun.

In the middle of it, Ferris’s principal, Mr. Rooney, finds himself in an arcade in his search for Ferris and his buddies. Toward the end of the scene, Mr. Rooney is standing in front of a television showing a Cubs game. The second he looks away, Ferris is shown catching a foul ball, coming perilously close to getting busted for playing hooky.

Mr. Rooney didn’t spot Ferris in the stands at Wrigley Field, but what if he had? What if Mr. Rooney’s hunch that Ferris was a school-skipping ne’er do well was proven correct when he saw Ferris, Sloan and Cameron on TV? All three of them would be cooked. Pictures don’t lie.

We were reminded of that classic sequence Friday afternoon while we were working up the story of MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown being arrested early Friday morning at the Beau Rivage and being charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct. (The charges have since been dropped).

When we reached Brown on his cell phone, he confirmed that he had “just left” the Beau Rivage. In one of the weirdest interviews we’ve ever done, Brown flatly denied that he had been arrested and charged with anything. This despite the fact that his mugshot was sitting on my computer screen while I was on the phone with him. Brown was polite. The tone of the interview never got confrontational, but he insisted he hadn’t been arrested. The whole thing was odd.

Fast forward about an hour, after the story had taken up the top spot on msbusiness.com, and other media across the state had picked it up. Brown apparently decided to abandon his denial strategy and start referring questions about the incident to the Beau Rivage.

Why didn’t he do that from the beginning? Did he think that, just because he denied the whole thing, we would just drop the story all together? Especially when we had his mugshot?

If the first rule of public relations is don’t put yourself in bad situations, the second rule is to aggressively confront the truth when you do, no matter how badly you may not want to. Brown broke both of those rules Friday. Pictures don’t lie. People do.

Ferris Bueller, Brown ain’t.

Categories: Butch Brown, MDOT, News, Politics Tags:

Special session on the near horizon?

July 19th, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace got a tip a few minutes ago that there was the possibility of a special legislative session Aug. 13, in which lawmakers will take up incentives for an economic development project.

Phone calls to a few folks who usually know about these things yielded a recurring theme:

No, they all agreed, they had not heard about the specific date for the special session. They had, however, had cross their radar the possibility of something going on in Meridian. In three different phone calls, Meridian came up unprompted all three times.

It makes sense. Toward the end of the 2010 regular session, a bill that would have offered state incentives to a wood products facility in Meridian died. At the time, a couple of people connected to the project said it wasn’t quite ready to take the last step to the altar of economic development. Maybe it is now. Or maybe it’s something else really cool that nobody (other than perhaps Gov. Haley Barbour) knows about yet.

Dan Turner, Barbour’s spokesman, did not immediately return a call to his cell phone. We’ll post what he says as soon as he does.

UPDATE: After checking around, one of the sources we spoke to about an hour ago just called back to say that the Aug. 13 rumor “seems to be true.” There still is no definitive word on whether Meridian is the target. But the Aug. 13 date is looking, for now, like a solid bet.

SECOND UPDATE: Another source we talked to earlier today has been doing some checking since we last spoke, and offers this: “Unless I’m badly wrong, it’s not Meridian.” So that’s the latest. Still no word from Turner, though if/when he calls back, we’ll share what he says. Stay tuned.

A look at fundraising in the 1st District

July 15th, 2010 No comments

Besides the final vote tally, there are no numbers more critical to the 1st Congressional District race between state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and incumbent Travis Childers, D-Booneville, than the amount of cash each has raised and the amount each has on hand.

With the latest fundraising quarter drawn to a close, both candidates feel pretty good about where they stand.

Magnolia Marketplace spoke to Nunnelee and Childers earlier this week for a separate story that will appear in the next issue of the MBJ.

The breakdown:

For the fundraising quarter that just ended, Nunnelee brought in $312,000. Childers reported $277,000 for the same period. It’s the second consecutive quarter Nunnelee has won the fundraising fight.

“It is more amazing that he has done it with a majority of his funds coming from individuals from Mississippi rather than Washington PACs,” said Nunnelee spokesperson Morgan Baldwin.

Where Childers has the upper hand, though, is the amount of cash on hand – money that can be spent right now.

Childers said in an interview yesterday that he has more than $900,000 in the bank. Nunnelee’s camp said he had $233,000.

Childers attributed Nunnelee’s quarterly fundraising victories to his obligations in D.C.

“I’ve been in session. He’s been campaigning. Matter of fact, he’s been campaigning for 18 months, basically since the day I won,” Childers said. “I’m not concerned about the cash numbers. I feel very confident where we are.”

National and state political experts agree that this will probably be the most vigorously contested Congressional race in the U.S. this year.

The fundraising numbers do nothing but confirm that. Should be an interesting fall.

Categories: Elections, News, Politics Tags:

Chaney, Pickering: Fire rebate cash misused

July 13th, 2010 No comments

State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney have issued civil demands totaling just short of $22,000 to current and former city officials in Sledge.

Current city clerk Yvonne Amos, former mayor Bernard Handy and former city clerk  Mary Allen allegedly misused money the city received from the state’s Fire Insurance Rebate Program. More specifically, the three are accused of taking $13,579 of FIRP money that was supposed to pay for equipment and/or training for the Sledge Fire Department and transferring it to the city’s general fund to pay for recurring expenses, things like salaries, city vehicles and so forth. The state allocates FIRP money to municipalities where fire insurance was unavailable for home and business owners because of a lack of fire protection. It goes mostly to rural areas, and decreases homeowners’ insurance premiums.

While other municipalities have been caught doing this — Pickering mentioned Terry and Isola and Neshoba County — the past few years, what sets Sledge apart is that the three who wrote the checks (Allen, Handy and Amos) were unable to produce the FIRP money once it was discovered it had been misappropriated. Terry, Isola and Neshoba County officials, according to Pickering and Chaney, were able to refund the FIRP cash once the two agencies demanded they do so.

“This is the first case in a long time where people actually spent the money,” Chaney said.

As of now, this is strictly civil matter. Neither Chaney nor Pickering would say whether the three would face criminal charges, though it would seem they wouldn’t as long as the money is repaid to the state.

Categories: News, Politics Tags:

Chaney, Pickering to announce investigation results this afternoon

July 13th, 2010 No comments

State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney will hold a joint press conference this afternoon to announce the results of an investigation into the possible misuse of rebate funds by officials of the city of Sledge.

Pickering and Chaney will release their findings of their two agencies’ joint investigation at 1:30. Magnolia Marketplace will be there and we’ll have the particulars as soon as they’re available, so check back here around mid-afternoon.

Mississippi music historians will recognize Sledge as the birthplace of country music star Charley Pride. Legend also has it that the town was once home to a man named Leroy Brown who inspired the Jim Croce song. There are some folks who label Sledge as the birthplace of the blues. We’ll find out this afternoon if some of the town’s leaders should be singing the blues. Talk to you then.

Categories: News, Politics Tags:

Presley is pulling for Kemper, but admits it’s a huge risk

June 7th, 2010 5 comments

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley spent the better part of 40 minutes addressing the crowd at the Stennis Capitol Press Corps luncheon.

While Presley didn’t break any new ground in his remarks about Mississippi Power Company’s plans to build a lignite coal-fired electric plant in Kemper County, he did reinforce his position that the plant represents a huge financial risk for MPC’s 190,000 customers in South Mississippi.

Specifically, Presley said the mechanism that allows MPC to charge its ratepayers for the cost of the facility as it’s being built — known as Construction Work in Progress financing — is particularly unnerving for him.

“All risks and all costs will be borne by the ratepayer,” he said.

Also, the technology the plant will use to generate electricity is new and unproven, Presley said, adding that “we can’t get anybody to put a stamp of approval on it, to promise us that it’s going to work.”

Presley went out of his way several times to say that he hoped the plant was successful, but his was the lone dissent when the PSC held a final vote on the issue.

“I hope the majority of the Commission’s crystal ball is a good one,” he said. “We’re spending other people’s money. I hope and pray it works. If (electric) rates go up, we’ve just made it harder for somebody to go into small business.”

The prudent thing to do, Presley said, would have been to delay the project until some of the murkier issues surrounding the technology are resolved. The unpredictability surrounding things like cap and trade and natural gas prices also presents a risk for jumping head-long into the plant immediately.

“This may be a wonderful project, but there’s no harm in waiting,” Presley said.

UPDATE: See video of Presley’s speech here.