Matching House and Senate legislation that would pull $25 million each of the next two years from the state’s unemployment compensation reserve fund to pay for workforce training made it to the floors of their respective houses Tuesday. The money would be used to step-up the state’s efforts to train workers for advanced manufacturing jobs and to create a future generation of Mississippians with paychecks sufficient to afford “two cars and a boat,” Gov. Phil Bryant said last week.
In a Friday morning address of members of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, the governor said the unemployment compensation fund has built up the reserves as the jobless rate declined from 9.8 percent three years ago to today’s 7.2 percent.
The money in the fund is generated through unemployment compensation taxes employers pay. With the improved economy, demands on the fund have dropped 24 percent yearly, according to Bryant.
The idea of putting $50 million over the next two years into training high school and community college students for well-paying skilled jobs has considerable support in the Legislature, Bryant said.
But the support of the MEC and its members will be critical, he said.
The MEC has adopted the initiative as its top legislative priority of the session, said CEO Blake Wilson, “Having the support of the governor is vital to getting our legislators to reach across the aisles and work together to make Mississippi more competitive,” Wilson said in an emailed MEC newsletter Tuesday.
“Specifically, this vital legislation would provide funding for targeted workforce training and allow Mississippi the agility needed to quickly respond to opportunities for business recruitment and expansion,” he added, and noted that “most importantly, Mississippi citizens would gain an avenue to learn the skills needed for today’s workforce and level the playing field between Mississippi and the states that we compete with the most for economic development projects.”
Two bills – House Bill 911 and Senate Bill 2457 – that propose diverting of the money advanced out of committees by Tuesday’s deadline. The bills are the work of the chairs of two key legislative committees — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith and Senate Finance Chairman Joey Fillingane .
SB 2457 moved forward Tuesday on a procedural motion by Fillingane, while House Workforce Development Committee Chairman Donnie Bell helped move HB 911 to the House floor.
In his appeal for the support of business leaders, Bryant said to continue lowering Mississippi’s unemployment numbers, still among the highest in the country, the state must beef up the amount of money allocated to workforce training.
That support can’t be assumed. Should the jobless rate begin climbing again, the state will have to raise rates businesses pay into the unemployment compensation fund.
But changes made to HB 911 in the House Workforce Development Committee make the Department of Employment Security the agency with authority over approving the funds for workforce development. It would keep the option of hanging onto the money should the jobless rate spike.
According to the MEC, the bill also:
• Makes Mississippi’s community colleges and its partners the preferred training entities, but the training will not be limited to these entities;
• Establishes a rule committee to set regulations for use of the funds. These rules must follow the Mississippi Administrative Procedures Act;
• Brings Mississippi into federal compliance with the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act of 2014;
• Includes a protection clause in case of severe downturn in the economy.
In his pitch for help, Bryant noted that workforce quality comes up first when executives inquire about bringing their companies to Mississippi. “The first thing use to be ‘incentives,’ he said.
This recognition of workforce value, Bryant said, has led states such as Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina to recently establish job training funds in the $50 million neighborhood.
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