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Coast business leaders speak out on session's results

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Business leaders here followed the regular four-month legislative session in an effort to keep track of key issues important to this area and the rest of the state. Some of those include tort reform, offshore drilling, a lodging tax increase and bond bills.

Biloxi banker Chevis Swetman said, “I know it was a very tough session and they had hard choices to make, mainly because of budget issues, but they had to be made sooner or later.”

The president and CEO of Peoples Bank likes the governor’s no new tax stance and was pleased with the formation of the House of Representative’s tourism committee for this important Gulf Coast industry. He feels tort reform still must be resolved but isn’t sure how that will be accomplished.

“I’m glad to see the coliseum bill out and hopefully we will get the 60% vote to pass it,” he said. “It needs to be done sooner rather than later because we’ve already outgrown conventions for some groups like the National Guard.”

Swetman says he was “sort of torn” on the drilling bill and would rather have no offshore drilling, although he recognizes the increased need for oil and gas in this country.

“It was interesting to watch the new governor and Legislature,” he added. “I’m glad I stayed down here on the Coast.”

For Liz Joachim, president and owner of Frank P. Corso Vending Machine Company in Biloxi, the proposed cigarette tax increase was a hot issue that she made trips to Jackson to fight against.

“I told them how we’ve struggled and would have to lay off people if it passed,” she said. “I do not want to raise taxes or single out one group. I feel the same about alcohol or any other group.”

Joachim thinks a slight increase in the sales tax, something that affects all people, would be the way to go if the state must raise any taxes. She questions why hunting gear and catalogue and Internet sales are not taxed. As a small business owner who has been sued, she is vitally interested in reform of the civil justice system and will be following the special session closely.

She belongs to three large organizations that cannot meet on the Coast because the present Convention Center cannot accommodate them so she enthusiastically supports the proposed expansion of that facility.

Joachim, who serves on the board of directors for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum and is the only Coast resident on the board for the international exhibits in Jackson, said, “My hat is off to our Coast legislators. I think they’ve done an excellent job in trying to get the point across to the northern part of the state of how important the Coast is and how much it contributes financially.”

Restaurateur Bobby Mahoney of Biloxi calls himself the poster baby for tort reform and sees resolving this issue as crucial for the state to move forward.

“I was in a lawsuit for 13 years and spent $250,000 in cash and $3 million in mental anguish for something I didn’t do,” he said. “Ultimately, I beat ‘em back but the system should be accountable. It’s one of those things where they send stamps and you send cash.”

As a member of the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center Commission, he feels they pretty much got what they asked for with the right to hold a local referendum on the lodging tax increase.

“Who would be against it?” he questions. “The local public will get renovations for the dated coliseum and there will be an economic boost as larger conventions come in and spend those dollars.”

He is pleased that the session was kind to the gaming industry. The tax on casinos was not increased and a bill to tax complimentary hotel rooms that casinos give to players went down in a blaze of glory.

“We’ve got to let them keep making money,” he said, pointing out that he thinks gaming has caused a rise in local wages and helped make the Biloxi school system one of the best in the South.

State Rep. Michael Janus is an employee of the Tenix Company, an Australian defense company that does hydrographic surveying for NOAA in this area. He handles government relations on a federal level and business development for them.

He is not thrilled to be returning to the New Capitol for a special session dealing with tort reform. He feels the solution is there if the whole House membership can vote on the issue.

“The Senate will vote on it and push it through in about an hour,” he predicts, “but in the House it won’t come out of a committee that’s made up of three trial lawyers. The speaker controls the process and for whatever reason, he’s denying us the opportunity to vote on it.”

The Biloxi legislator is worried that highway projects impacting the Coast will be put on hold because the state took money from the Department of Transportation’s gaming counties highway fund. “It scares me,” he said, “and I don’t think people realize the implications for us.”

He is also concerned that no bond bills were passed, especially the one matching funds for Northrop Grumman’s facility improvements that will create jobs. “We cannot make promises to corporate America and not live up to our commitment,” he said. “They have kicked in $110 million or two to one what the state will spend. We passed the bond bill for $48 million last year and were supposed to do it again for the same amount.”

Janus felt confident that the governor would call a special session to deal with this unfinished business and says not doing so will hurt the Coast.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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