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Leaders hope to spark economic growth with STEPS

By NASH NUNNERY I STAFF WRITER

nash.nunnery@msbusiness.com

State leaders hope that a new program to encourage Mississippi employers to begin hiring more workers is the next “step” in sparking a sluggish economy.

A joint venture of the Department of Human Services and the Department of Employment Security, Mississippi STEPS (Subsidized Transitional Employment Program and Services) was introduced last week at Gov. Haley Barbour’s Small Business Forum in downtown Jackson.

The proposed $43-million program could create 4,800 new jobs in the state, according to state leaders.

The initiative will subsidize wages of a new employee hired by any public hospital, private non-profit or for-profit entity in the state over a six-month period.  The governor said the program, which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will begin next month and run through Sept. 2011.

 “Mississippi STEPS is unique in that it is a program specifically designed to benefit both the employee and employer,” said Barbour.  “The STEPS program will provide much-needed aid during this recession by enabling businesses to hire new workers, thus enhancing the economic engines of our local communities.”

STEPS is designed to place workers in jobs that will result in full-time employment, as well as increase the skill level of the eligible participant.  Officials said that the program will cover an employee’s salary entirely at the beginning of the six-month period, and the subsidy decreases in “steps” over six months.

Preference will be given to small businesses but the program is open to any public hospital or private business, Barbour said.  Eligible employees must have at least one child under the age of 18 and earn within 250 percent of the federal poverty line.

Held at the Jackson Convention Complex, the forum drew approximately 150 small business owners poised to hear how hot-button issues such as healthcare reform and energy are affecting the bottom line for employers.

Barbour stressed that he “would not commit to any legislation that I don’t know what’s in it,” referring to healthcare reform.

 “As governor, my first concern is the affect that this legislation will have on Mississippi overall,” he told the audience.  “My second concern is the affect on small business, which I consider the backbone of our economy.”

One drawback to the proposed legislation is that insurance and other health-related costs would not go down, said Ron Aldridge, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

“The status quo in healthcare is unacceptable for small businesses, but not at any cost,” he said.

During a segment on energy, Barbour expressed concern about a legislative bill, also known as Waxman-Markey, which includes a cap-and-trade program that would attempt to curb global warming by imposing strict limits on the emission of greenhouse gases.

“Energy is the lifeblood of t our economy in Mississippi,” he said.  “Costs associated with the cap-and-trade tax, the renewable energy mandate and the $81 billion in tax increases on the oil and gas industry are concerns for everyone.

“Ultimately, the person who turns on the light switch, fuels up the car with gas or drives the truck delivering goods across country – that is who will pay.”

The bill would have a devastating effect on manufacturing, said Jay Moon, head of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.  

“About 15 percent of all employment in Mississippi has to do with manufacturing,’ Moon said.  “This  (Waxman-Markey) bill would be a job killer.”

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