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Rumors swirling about biofuel location(s) (Updated)

August 25th, 2010 1 comment

We know for sure that the economic development project lawmakers will most likely approve $50 million in incentives for Friday will have multiple locations.

True to the form he has established in his six and a half years in the Governor’s Mansion, Gov. Haley Barbour is not telling anybody for sure where those locations will be until he’s absolutely ready to do so.

Some checking with folks this morning has yielded two possibilities: D’Iberville and Greenville. One person Magnolia Marketplace spoke to a few minutes ago seems to think D’Iberville is not one of the locations, even though that city is included in the special session call in a separate item from the biofuel project. City leaders in D’Iberville are asking the Legislator for permission to acquire property for commercial development, but no details are given about what manner of development that is.

The fact that it’s separate from the item dealing with the biofuel project, said our source, is significant. “If D’Iberville were one of the places that’s going to get this thing, it would have been included in the nebolous general call,” they said, referring to the location detail-free description of the incentive package lawmakers will consider.

Conversations with folks about Greenville as a possibility reinforce that notion, considering Greenville has more land to offer as one of the locations and sits adjacent to the Mississippi River. Whether the proximity to the River is enough to overcome D’Iberville’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico is anybody’s guess.

Or maybe Greenville and D’Iberville will both be shut out of the biofuel sweepstakes. We’ll just have to wait and see.

UPDATED: Apparently heeding our cry (but probably not), Barbour just announced via press release that he will discuss the project with the media Thursday at 2 p.m. We’ll know everything we need and want to know then.

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.

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:

Barbour modifies his budget recommendation

April 14th, 2010 11 comments

Just under a week before lawmakers resume the 2010 session, Gov. Haley Barbour has adjusted his executive budget recommendation to reflect the most recent revenue estimate.

The House and Senate have agreed that there will be about $5.4 billion to spread among state agencies for fiscal year 2011, which starts July 1. Barbour based his budget outline on that number.

The big-ticket items aren’t affected much, based on their funding for FY2010.

Education, under Barbour’s plan, would receive $3 million less in FY2011 than it got in FY2010. THe education budget eats up $4.57 billion of the available $5.4 billion.

Barbour does propose taking $30 million from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to create a fund that would offer bridge loans to school districts that needed them.

“That’s not really fair to the districts that are run well,” Barbour said. The National Board Certified Teachers program, which pays a salary supplement to teachers who meet certain criteria, would remain fully funded.

The news isn’t as good for higher education, which would receive 12 percent less year to year. The community and junior college system (11 percent less) is in a similar situation.

Medicaid’s budget is still somewhat up in the air, as states await Congress’ decision to extend (or not extend) the enhanced FMAP that would pour $187 million into Mississippi’s Medicaid program. That uncertainty is why lawmakers took a recess in the first place.

Corrections would undergo a 4.8 percent cut, and the Department of Public Safety would have its appropriation cut 8 percent. Barbour said the 4 percent cut to the Corrections budget would not result in the release of prisoners who were otherwise not scheduled for parole.

In all, Barbour’s proposal would trim most agencies’ funding levels between 12 and 17 percent, with some cut more and some cut less. Those cut the most include Attorney General Jim Hood’s office (17.4 percent), IHL’s agriculture units (16.9 percent) and Barbour’s office (14.8 percent).

Lawmakers return to Jackson to craft the FY2011 budget April 20.

Bryan provides glimpse of budget battle lines

April 5th, 2010 12 comments

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was today’s keynote at the monthly luncheon meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps.

His opening remark? “I disagree with Gov. Barbour’s approach to the budget.”

While that isn’t a surprise — Democrats in the Legislature have rarely agreed with the Republican governor about anything — what he said in the ensuing half hour does offer a preview of what the talking points will be once lawmakers reconvene April 20 to craft a budget for fiscal year 2011.

As they have the past few budget-crafting sessions, education and Medicaid will dominate the proceedings.

Bryan rattled off a list of cash reserves — the Rainy Day Fund, Health Care Trust Fund and some discretionary stimulus money at Barbour’s disposal — and said all those reserves totaled up to $750 million.

“With all of that available, we do not need to have the devastating budget cuts,” Bryan said, referring to Barbour’s  cutting roughly $500 million out of the FY2010 budget due to plunging revenue collections.

Education, Bryan said, should receive every penny possible.

“All of us understand that public education is going to be underfunded even in the best of times. (But) there has never been a year that will be as desperate as next year will be for public schools.”

Bryan said the last round of cuts Barbour made, which resulted in Medicaid reimbursements to providers being reduced, was a “completely unnecessary disruption of the system.”

So there’s the preview. The full-length feature film starts in two weeks.

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

Legislature to adjourn this week minus a budget? And what about those new Nissans?

March 22nd, 2010 No comments

Magnolia Marketplace has been making the rounds of the Capitol sources this morning, and we’ve got an interesting nugget to pass along: There are strong expectations that the Legislature will adjourn this week without a budget.

Reason being: The state still needs more information from the federal government regarding Medicaid, and how the state will have to adjust to the new FMAP rules. So the plan is to send lawmakers home while all that is ironed out. Once it is, the Legislature will gavel back into session and hammer out a spending plan for fiscal year 2011, which starts July 1.

The same thing last session kept lawmakers at the Capitol literally until the 11th hour. A budget deal wasn’t reached until minutes before the new fiscal year started. There was a significant hue and cry earlier this session to make sure that didn’t happen again. A giant leap toward a repeat of last year appears ready to happen, though.

Dan Turner, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, would not confirm the rumors but did say such a move “wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.”

So stay tuned on that front.

Shifting gears, Nissan will hold a press conference Wednesday afternoon to provide an update to its $118 million expansion and restructuring that will make way for production of light commercial vehicles. The LCVs are scheduled to hit the market this fall, once the 2011 model year starts. Magnolia Marketplace wrote a story about this very thing two weeks ago, and the company said then that everything was on track. Wednesday should fill in some of the gaps. We’ll have the particulars once it’s over.

The broken budget record is still spinning

March 17th, 2010 No comments

Gov. Haley Barbour announced today that an additional $41 million was disappearing from the state’s budget for fiscal year 2010 because of spiraling state revenue collections.

Since the budget year started last July, $499.1 million has been cut.

“Hopefully we’re making the last cuts of the year,” Barbour said.

The latest round of cuts comes just a few hours after the Joint Legislative Budget Committee lowered  the revenue estimate for FY2010 and FY2011. FY10′s figure was reduced to $4.43 billion, and FY2011 was set at $4.45 billion.

Barbour said he was “skeptical” revenue in FY2011 would reach $4.45 billion. Legislators are crafting that plan now.

Barbour signaled his opposition to any budget that comes to him from the Legislature that would waive the stipulation, commonly called the “2 percent rule,” that sets aside 2 percent of appropriations for the rainy day fund. Legislation that violates the 2 percent rule, Barbour said, can expect his veto.

Aside from the state’s dismal fiscal situation, Barbour touched on a few other topics. Among them:

• The healthcare bill President Obama hopes to pass this week would be “very bad for Mississippi,” he said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to pass the bill without a vote wasn’t very popular with Barbour, either. “That’s mind-boggling to me,” he said.

• He urged the House to pass the reauthorization for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. If the agency is reauthorized by June 30, those currently drawing unemployment will no longer do so. Barbour dropped strong hints that he would call a special session if lawmakers end the regular session without reauthorizing the agency.

• We asked Barbour what was next for The Aerospace Alliance, a four-state consortium that seeks to expand the Gulf South’s aerospace industry, which suffered its first big loss last week when Northrop Grumman/EADS pulled out of the KC-X Tanker program. He said some pretty interesting things, which we’ll chronicle in a story in next week’s MBJ.

Is sugar the new nicotine?

March 1st, 2010 No comments

As we mentioned earlier, Judith Phillips, a research analyst with the Stennis Institute of Government, was the keynote at today’s monthly luncheon meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps.

Phillips released the findings of a report she just completed that looks at some of the facts and figures associated with obesity – more specifically, how much sugar-sweetened drinks contribute to the condition.

Mississippi is at or near the top of almost every list that ranks the most obese states in the U.S.

Figures from 2008, the latest that are available from the Centers for Disease Control, tell us that 33.4 percent of Mississippians are considered obese relative to their Body Mass Index, which measures height and weight to determine if a person is obese, overweight, at his ideal weight or even underweight. Mississippi is first on that list, followed in second place by Alabama, at 32.2 percent.

The CDC also puts Mississippi at the top of deaths per 100,000 people that are obesity related. In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, 270.9 Mississippians died of heart disease, which is the most common obesity-related disease that causes death. Alabama, at 253.3 deaths per capita, is second on that list, too.

In 2009, according to Phillips, Mississippi spent $700 million in Medicaid money to treat obesity-related conditions. Phillips said that number is expected to rise above $1 billion the next decade, as states are forced to pick up bigger portions of their Medicaid tabs.

“Action is needed (to combat obesity and pay for the tratment of related illnesses and diseases) but that decision is left up to the decision-makers,” Phillips said, adding that her report wasn’t meant to forge policy, but to provide information to those who make policy decisions.

A bill that would have added an excise tax on sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas has already died this legislative session.

But the issue is far from over.

Rep. John Mayo, who authored the bill this session, has said repeatedly the past few months that he will continue to introduce similar legislation. Phillips’ report says that a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would produce an average of $145 million per year in revenue the next four years; a tax-per-ounce of 1.5 cents would generate an average of $187 million per year over that same period. A two-cent-per-ounce tax would produce an average of $208 million over the next four years.

Ron Aldridge, who is the Mississippi director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, also serves as the executive vice president of the Beverage Association of Mississippi, which staunchly opposes any excise tax on its sugar-sweetened products.

Aldridge said the BAM led the charge in 2007 as Mississippi became the first state to remove full-calorie sugar-sweetened beverages from public schools.

“This thing is not about whether or not our beverages cause obesity. There’s been no scientific study that says that. There’s been no scientific study that proves there’s a direct link to that, either. What they do say is that it’s about calories in and calories burned.

We believe we need to attack obesity at every front. The public schools have done an excellent job of that. Taxes aren’t going to make us healthier. That’s the reality of it.”

This sounds a lot like the rhetoric that surrounded the cigarette tax in its first years of debate at the Capitol. Legislation to levy an excise tax on cigarettes died the first three or four times lawmakers attempted to move it forward. While it’s not certain that a soda tax will pass, like the cigarette tax eventually did, what is certain is that it’s an issue that will be a part of the next handful of legislative sessions.

Categories: News, Politics, State revenue Tags:

Bryant: Barbour’s veto will be sustained

February 24th, 2010 No comments

Gov. Haley Barbour earlier today vetoed Senate Bill 2688, a bill that would have restored money to some agencies after budget cuts, because he said in a press release that “it spent too much of the state’s reserves and ineffectively divided funds among several agencies. This legislation would virtually guarantee higher taxes within a few years,” Barbour said of the bill’s use of one-time money to fund recurring expenses .

Specifically, Barbour said the bill spent too much of the Health Care Trust Fund and the state’s rainy day fund to fill some of the gaps left by budget cuts, which have totaled more than $400 million since the fiscal year started last July.

Barbour had signaled his intentions to veto the bill almost from the moment it cleared both chambers of the Capitol about a week ago. There had been some strong indications that Barbour’s perfect veto record would acquire its first blemish once the legislation headed back to the House and Senate.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, in a statement released about 10 minutes ago, doused cold water on that notion.

“It is my intent to sustain the Governor’s veto and immediately move on SB 2495,” Bryant said. “This bipartisan compromise allocates nearly $40 million to restore cuts made to education. It also places a total of $16 million, including $14 million that we did not anticipate receiving, to the Department of Corrections. In all, SB 2495 restores $82 million of cuts made to state agencies for FY 10. I will continue to work with the Governor and the House leadership to reach a fair and reasonable solution without compromising the state’s savings account.”

Obviously, if enough senators vote to override Barbour’s veto, Bryant’s plan will fail. With the House all but certain to override Barbour’s veto, it will be up to Bryant to muster enough votes in the Senate to sustain it.

Barbour’s undefeated veto record has come close to entering the realm of political legend. Magnolia Marketplace will never forget Barbour’s veto last session of a bill that would have eliminated the use of eminent domain for economic development projects. The bill originally cleared the Senate 52-0. His veto was sustained with a handful of votes to spare.

“That’s the damndest thing,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute, shortly afterward the Senate sustained the veto.

It sure was.