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Bill proposing incremental judicial pay raises will be filed next week

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller told a meeting of the Capital Area Bar Association Tuesday that legislation to implement pay raises for trial and appellate judges will be introduced this session, probably sometime next week.

It’s the second session in a row the legislation has arrived at the Capitol. It died last year. Judges haven’t received a raise since 2003.

The measure has already gained the endorsement of a handful of major business groups, including the Mississippi Economic Council and the Gulf Coast Business Council.

Its intent is to get Mississippi judges off the bottom of the pay scale. According to the National Center for State Courts, the southeastern average for trial judge pay is $138,901. In Mississippi, trial judges are paid $104,170. Mississippi Court of Appeals judges are paid $105,050 annually; state Supreme Court judges earn $112,530. Trial and appellate court judges in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee earn salaries that average about 30 percent more than that. Alabama tops that list, with its supreme court judges pulling in $180,839, and trial judges making $158,134.

Like it would have last year, the legislation will raise judicial salaries incrementally, starting Jan. 1, 2013, and ending on that same date in 2016. By then, associate justices on the Supreme Court would make $152,250 (up from $112,530 now). Circuit and chancery judges salaries would increase from $104,170 now, to $136,000. The bill would also require the State Personnel Board to review judicial salaries on Nov. 1, 2017, and every four years after that. The Legislature, starting in 2019, would set judicial salaries based on the recommendations of the State Personnel Board.

Increases in civil filing and appellate court docket fees would fund the raises. Civil filing fees in circuit court are currently $121. In chancery court, they’re $108. Each would increase $40. Docket fees for the Mississippi Supreme Court would double, from $100 to $200. Under that format, no money from the state’s general fund would be used.

Former ninth district circuit judge Frank Vollor joined Waller on the panel, and said he left the bench after 20 years strictly for economic reasons. He is now in private practice.

“We expect a lot out of our judges, and we need to pay them adequately,” he said.

Debate during the 2011 session included the concern some lawmakers had over the constitutionality of the bill. The state’s Constitution prohibits changes in pay for judges during their terms. Waller said that could be circumvented by giving judges additional duties. This legislation will do that, he said, by requiring members of the Supreme Court and chancery and circuit judges to promote judicial education in schools, drug courts, electronic filing and management systems developed by the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts.

As chief justice, Waller’s pay is not tied to the section of the Constitution that prohibits changes in pay during judicial terms. The same goes for goes for members of the Court of Appeals.

“This is a small step toward capturing judicial independence,” Waller told the crowd at the Capital Club. “If we don’t capture (revenue generated by filing fees), somebody else will, and it probably won’t be the judiciary.”

Waller said in an interview after the presentation that he expects some opposition at the Capitol, but hopes the fact that user fees would fund the raises would be enough to get it to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk.

House Judiciary A Chairman Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, has already indicated he supports it. Baker’s counterpart in the Senate, Vicksburg Republican Briggs Hopson, has done the same.

“These are hard times, and I understand that,” Waller told reporters. “There’s a lot of needs. In recognition of that, we’ve chosen a funding model that won’t impact the general fund. We think that’s the fairest way to go about it.”

Metro Jackson well-repped in key political positions

January 1st, 2012 No comments

The governor’s office and both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature will have entirely new leadership when the 2012 session starts at noon Jan. 3.

And each of the new faces has roots in the Jackson Metro area.

Gov.-elect Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves are from Rankin County. Rep. Phillip Gunn, a Republican whose district includes portions of Clinton and Madison County, is all but guaranteed to be the next House Speaker.

The three men whose approval each piece of legislation must receive before it becomes law are intimately familiar with the city of Jackson and its needs and problems. Will that give Jackson a built-in advantage in getting its legislative wish list passed?

“I would hope it would help,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who has been the tip of the spear for many a legislative fight on behalf of Jackson. “But of course, (former speaker) Billy McCoy has been a big supporter of Jackson.”

Indeed, McCoy told the Mississippi Business Journal during an interview last session that one of his favorite ways to unwind after a day at the Capitol was to drive by the Farish Street project and check on its progress. David Watkins, who is developing the historic Farish Street district, said in a separate interview last April that he and McCoy would often run into each other in the construction zone.

“He’s really interested in what we’re doing here,” Watkins said of McCoy. “He realizes what Farish Street could do for Jackson.”

Brown was part of a meeting right before Christmas with Jackson officials in which the city’s legislative priorities were discussed. And while specifics weren’t laid out, Brown said the city’s agenda would be similar to those from previous sessions.

“They have to decide what they want to do,” he said. “Obviously, they’d like some help with some of the infrastructure projects that we have. We don’t know exactly what they’ll ask for, but roads are always a problem. There’s just not enough money for them.”

Brown said he expects to receive Jackson’s legislative bundle by mid-January, in time to file the bills before the session’s first deadline on Feb. 20.

It’s likely the agenda will include a mechanism to enact a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes law, in which Jackson would receive a lump sum from the state to offset the revenue the city loses from state buildings being exempt from property taxes.  The bill would likely be dead on arrival, though, Brown said.

“I’d like to see it. I think we need to do it with our property tax situation. With the budget like it is, I think anything that adds cost to the state general fund is going to be a non-starter.”

With revenue bills required to originate in the House, such legislation would have to earn Gunn’s approval before hitting the floor. Gunn did not return messages by the time the MBJ went to press last Tuesday.

Jackson scored a couple major victories during the 2011 session. A bond package totaling $38 million for a civil rights museum and a Mississippi history museum passed. The two museums should be open in time for the state’s bicentennial in 2017. They will sit adjacent to each other in downtown Jackson.

The bill setting up the fund for the museums enjoyed support from Gov. Haley Barbour, and several key committee chairmen whose districts are outside Jackson. It would have been difficult to form that coalition in the past, Brown said.

“I don’t’ sense as much anti-Jackson (sentiment) as maybe there was 20 years ago. A lot of cities in the state need help. There has been some concern in other parts of the state that if we help Jackson, what will happen for Hattiesburg, Meridian, the Gulf Coast. Everybody needs help.

“I do see some concern about just the whole financial situation,” Brown continued. “We don’t have enough money to do the things we need to do. There’s just not enough to go around.”

Economic development special session set for Friday (Updated)

August 29th, 2011 No comments

Gov. Haley Barbour announced this morning that there will be a special session Friday for lawmakers to deal with an incentive package for at least one economic development project, maybe two.

The details of each will not be unveiled until Wednesday.

As is his custom, Barbour released little to no details about the projects. He said it will be Wednesday before we’ll know if lawmakers will deal with an incentive package for one project, or two.

“We’re not sure the other will be ripe by Friday,” Barbour said. If it isn’t, it will be at the top of the list for the regular session that starts in January, he said.

When the Legislature passed that $420 million bond bill toward the end of the last session, there was some money earmarked for future economic development projects, with the intent of having the money in place to avoid a special session. Barbour said Monday morning that neither of these projects was eligible for that. When the bill passed in April, Barbour said he was under the impression that one of the projects was going to Ohio, and the other wasn’t even on the radar.

“Both of these involve large (private) capital expenditures and large job numbers,” Barbour said.

That’s about all we know right now.

UPDATE: This may provide a clue about at least one of the projects, from the Columbus, Miss. Commercial Dispatch: http://www.cdispatch.com/news/article.asp?aid=12724&sort=d#ixzz1WXRsSp6S

Burton: No political favoritism behind budget bill language

April 4th, 2011 1 comment

Monday morning, Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, got a text message from Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, in which Newton asked Moak to allow the conference report for House Bill 1095 to clear the House, which would have sent it to Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk to await his signature. The text, Moak said, seemed odd because Moak had done no work on the bill. He wasn’t the committee chair that sent it to the floor, and he wasn’t one of the conferees appointed to hash it out.

HB 1095 is a bill that revises actual revenue numbers for fiscal year 2011 for several state agencies, including the Department of Public Safety and the Division of Medicaid. Language inserted either late last week or over the weekend, however, spells out the job description and educational requirements of the deputy director of administration of the Division of Medicaid. The educational requirements say a candidate “shall have at least five years’ experience in a health-related field and/or shall possess a special knowledge of Medicaid as pertaining to the State of Mississippi.  The Deputy Director of Administration may perform those duties of the executive director that the executive director has not expressly retained for himself.” The bill stipulates that the deputy director of administration would serve at the will and pleasure of the governor, and would be appointed by the governor.

 Moak, along with several other House Democrats and at least one Republican, opposed that language in the bill, saying it had been inserted too late in the process to property evaluate, and that it appeared to intend for a specific person to become the deputy director of administration at the Division of Medicaid.

“When several of us found out about it (over the weekend), that was the first time we had seen it,” Moak said. “We were really concerned.”

And when Moak got the text message from Burton in which Burton encouraged Moak to support the bill as a whole, Moak said it “kind of raised my eyebrows. I had no conversations with Burton about this beforehand. So somebody told him I was against it. That’s my logical rationale.”

Magnolia Marketplace called Burton to get his reaction to what Moak had told us, and to ask him if he was interested in becoming the deputy director of administration at the Division of Medicaid.

“I’ve qualified to run for re-election,” he told us. In that conversation, he denied having contacted any House member to encourage them to support the bill.

A few minutes after that, we called Moak back, who told us that he had received another text message from Burton, this one asking Moak to delete any text messages from Burton. Moak did not delete the messages, he said, because they could be the subject of a public records request.

Shortly after that, we called Burton again, who admitted to basically lobbying for the bill to Moak, but denied several times that he had been given assurances that the deputy director of administration job would be his.

“I supported it because the governor and the Division of Medicaid supported it,” Burton said. “If it’s for Medicaid, I’m going to support it. I’ve heard I’m going to be everything from Division of Medicaid Director to the head of the Department of Public Safety. Anything’s possible. Would I take the job if offered? I might.”

The job won’t be extended to anybody, because the language dealing with it has been taken out of the bill, after Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, made a point of order on the House floor that eliminated it. The conference report for the bill, minus the deputy director of administration language, has already been approved by both chambers and will now go to Barbour.

“I just didn’t understand the need,” Baker said, when asked why he raised the point of order that ended up striking the language. “We’re spending too much as it is.”

According to House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, who was one of the House conferees, the Division of Medicaid requested the language be inserted in the bill.

Division of Medicaid spokesperson Francis Rullan did tell us in an email this morning that the deputy director of administration position already exists, and that he is under the impression that it currently requires a college degree and a CPA license. We’ve followed up our original inquiry to see if the position is currently filled, what the salary would be and if the Division of Medicaid requested the language that was struck from the bill.

Before Baker’s action, the bill would have required that a candidate either have five years’ worth of experience in the healthcare field, or an intimate knowledge of Mississippi’s Medicaid system, or both. There was no requirement a candidate hold a college degree. Burton’s bio on the Senate website lists his education as having been attained from Newton High School. No college or university is listed.

Barbour spokesperson Laura Hipp said that the governor did not request the language be inserted into the bill, “but he wouldn’t have objected to it had it made it into the final version.”

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.”

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.”

 

Health Report Card: “Failed in many areas”

January 21st, 2011 1 comment

We promised you yesterday to provide the particulars of the Mississippi State Medical Association and the Mississippi State Department of Health’s 2011 Mississippi Public Health Report Card.

It’s a little late because the Fifth Circuit’s damages cap ruling took up yesterday’s blog time, but here it is:

“The state’s health is in critical condition,” said Dr. Timothy Alford, MSMA president. “We have failed in many areas.”

Alford was referring to our state’s rankings in several health indicators. For example, according to the MSMA and the MSDH, Mississippi has more obese adults per capita than any state in the U.S. We also lead in adults who report no physical activity in the past month. We lead in deaths by heart disease, we’re second in cases of diabetes and hypertension, first in traffic fatalities and second in infant mortality.

Basically, like we have been for generations, we’re first in everything bad and last in everything good. Mary Currier, the state health officer, says those statistics trace back to choices.

“Many of these things are predictable and are things we can do something about,” she said during a press conference Thursday at the Capitol.

Numbers like these that are unveiled during a legislative session are usually accompanied by recommendations, and the Report Card was no different. Fighting the general unhealthiness, Alford said, will take a statewide smoking ban, and full funding of the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, the Healthcare Trust Fund, the Trauma Care Trust Fund and full funding of Medicaid. So like everything and everybody else, the MSMA and MDH are asking for money.

It’s an election year, so Medicaid will almost certainly be given most if not all of the money it needs. A smoking ban, however, is already meeting resistance for the same reason.

Re-election anxiety will be at the center of every major decision this session, and these issues are not immune. So have a good weekend, and lay off the french fries.

Categories: Elections, News, Politics, State revenue Tags:

Barbour unveils his budget plan

November 15th, 2010 No comments

Gov. Haley Barbour presented his Executive Budget Recommendation this afternoon.

Under Barbour’s outline, most state agencies would receive a cut of 8 percent in fiscal year 2012, compared with funding for the current budget year, which ends June 30.

Education, Medicaid, Corrections and the Mississippi Development Authority are a few of the agencies that were granted level funding. Of course, Barbour’s EBR means little right now. The actual budget-writing process won’t start for another three months or so.

There were no major surprises. State revenue collections have stayed flat, and there’s a whole lot of stimulus money that isn’t available, so cuts were expected. No agency will ultimately be very happy with its funding, but that’s been the case for a couple years now. In sum, the loss of stimulus money and an increase in the state’s share of the Medicaid match will create a shortfall of nearly $700 million.

One thing Magnolia Marketplace did notice about this year’s EBR press conference, though, is it lacked a lot of the bomast of last year’s, when Barbour recommended merging the Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State, and Alcorn and Valley into Jackson State. Each recommendation was met with outrage from supporters of the affected schools.

Barbour did not explicitly make the same recommendations this year, but did note in his budget narrative that he continues to favor consolidation. He also reiterated his desire to cut the number of school districts statewide by a third. With elections next year, it’s not very likely either of those ideas will gain much traction once lawmakers return in January.

The budget — to go with job-creation — has been at or near the top of Barbour’s list of priorities since he took office nearly seven years ago. Election-year politics that he doesn’t have to engage in will drive the bulk of budget decisions, so how Barbour maneuvers within that — and how much he engages compared with years past — will be interesting to watch.

Has KiOR reached a purchase agreement for its product? (Update)

October 26th, 2010 2 comments

Bluefire Renewables Inc., the California-based biofuel company that is building a facility in Fulton, has reached three major milestones recently.

The company has reached a feedstock agreement that will ensure it has the biomass it needs to produce ethanol, it has found a buyer for the ethanol, and it has let the contract to actually construct its facility.

Another biofuel company that plans to build in Mississippi, KiOR, will not receive any of the $75 million in benefits the Legislature approved for it in late summer until KiOR has reached a purchase agreement with an oil company (or companies) to buy the renewable crude oil and refine it.

KiOR CEO Fred Cannon said in late August that he and his team were “in final negotiations” with a buyer. With that in mind, Magnolia Marketplace has been trying since Monday morning to find out if an agreement has been finalized; and if not, how close one is to becoming finalized. Calls and emails to a KiOR spokesperson have not yet been returned. Gov. Haley Barbour’s spokesman Dan Turner was not exactly sure one way or the other. We’re currently awaiting a response from the Mississippi Development Authority.

It would seem nothing can move on this project until KiOR has found somebody to buy and refine the re-crude it plans to produce from timber. The bulk of the state money approved for the project will go toward construction costs and the equipment that will stock it.

So has a purchase agreement been reached? It’s not a hard question. When we get an answer, we’ll let you know.

UPDATE: A KiOR spokesperson just emailed Magnolia Marketplace and said there had been no off-take agreement reached, and that discussions between the company and potential buyers remain ongoing.

No firm timetable exists for executing a deal, but it’s our guess that they’d like to get one done as soon as possible.