Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Messy, Ugly and In Your Face Way of Getting It Done

Last week, we lost a bill on Committee Deadline Day. The bill would have given an additional circuit judge to the Forrest/Perry Circuit District. We lost because of a dispute between representatives of a separate circuit district that was also included in the bill.

Over the last few days, we knew our options were limited in continuing the effort to get this judgeship. One idea was to do a suspended resolution. This resolution would have suspended the deadline rules so both legislative bodies could have considered the judge bill further. The odds of successfully passing this are remote, because you have to get a majority vote in the Rules Committee and a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. I liken a suspended resolution to throwing a hail mary pass at the end of the game.

However, I felt it was worth a shot, because so many counties were affected. It would have been hard to pull off. Luckily, there was another option.

A separate bill (SB 2751) regarding assistant district attorneys and criminal investigators (which also affected Forrest/Perry counties) passed committee and was on the House calendar. The only other option was to amend this related bill. However, this could also backfire and be subject to a point of order, because the exact code sections were not in the district attorney bill.

We prepared an amendment to this bill, and Percy Watson introduced it on the floor yesterday. It passed. Other circuit/chancery districts suddenly got the same idea and also amended the same bill. The final bill then passed.

The more I go through this process, it reminds me of a really long football game. After all of your set plays that have been practiced and drawn up for months are stopped, in the end, you end up just running the ball up the middle and doing what it takes to move the ball across the line. It's hard and smash-mouth and ugly, but you try and get it done.

So the circuit judge bill makes it to the next step in the process. The bill now goes to conference, and hopefully, the circuit judge for the 12th Circuit District will survive. However, I've been told you never let up until the Governor's ink is scratched across the page to sign the bill into law.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Comeback I Missed

Last night, I had the rare opportunity to watch the Southern Miss baseball team in action. Because the game was held at Trustmark Park in Pearl (home of the Mississippi Braves), I was able to make the game. Lucky enough, they were playing Ole Miss, and it turned out to be a great game.

Over the 2008 legislative session, I have become conditioned to go to sleep by 9 p.m. So you can imagine, after the game started at 7 p.m., around the 5th inning I started getting restless and ready to drive back to Jackson. However, my freshman counterpart from Pascagoula and fellow Southern Miss enthusiast, Brandon Jones, beckoned me to stay until the end of the game, promising me Southern Miss would come back and win.

At the end of the 8th inning, after Southern Miss left the bases loaded, Ole Miss led 2-0. It was getting close to 10 p.m., and I wanted to beat the traffic out of the park, so I took off, despite the heckling from Jones and other legislators.

I arrived home and checked before I went to bed. There, at the top of the page, it was reported that Southern Miss junior Corey Stevens hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning to win the game for Southern Miss 3-2.

As I knew I would be ragged unmercifully the next morning by Brandon for giving up and going home prior to the comeback, I went ahead and humbly texted Brandon, recognizing my fairweather attitude towards my alma mater. His response: "I can't believe we left."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New College Board Appointees

Thursday, I had the privilege of attending the Governor's press conference announcing four new Board members to the Institutions of Higher Learning, better known as the College Board.

Four people were appointed- Alan Perry of Jackson, whom I didn't know; C.D. Smith of Meridian, who actually helped coach me in soccer when I was a young lad in Meridian; but most importantly, Christy Pickering of Biloxi, and even more importantly, Dr. Doug Rouse of Hattiesburg.

Dr. Rouse is a Southern Miss alum and a constituent of mine. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have someone of his intellect and passion for Southern Miss on the College Board. In a time where many people have moved out to the western suburbs, Dr. Rouse and his wife have chosen to stay in the city of Hattiesburg and invest their lives there; that kind of commitment says a great deal about their character.

Christy Pickering is also a Southern Miss alum.

To borrow a line from the late legend Powell Ogletree, it is a great day to be a golden eagle. With three Southern Miss alums now on the College Board, Southern Miss can begin to truly say it is receiving a fair shake in matters of higher education. When I was in student government at the University (only five years ago), there was not a single College Board member who had earned his/her undergraduate degree from Southern Miss. Now we have three, and it's something to celebrate as we approach Founder's Day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Progress Hattiesburg

I’ve been asked to weigh in on Progress Hattiesburg. As I’ve said before, I’ll always to try to tell you what I think. I’ll never try to pretend that I don’t struggle with a decision if in fact I do. This is an instance where I have conflicting views.

I’ve watched over the last several years as the idea evolved, narrowing its focus to investments on infrastructure. When the proposal appeared a couple of years ago in the form of $60 million for some infrastructure, some recreation and other vague projects, I was definitely against it.

This year, however, the concept brought to the table was something much more concrete. The money would only go to infrastructure. When I campaigned last fall, I said there had to be an investment made. To sustain our city and our region’s growth, we must make an investment in the roads, bridges, water, sewer and drainage. We have grown too large, too fast- which is not a bad thing at all, and no specific person or administration is to blame. The older parts of our city, such as downtown and Ward 4, have infrastructure that is nearing 100 years old.

I still believe the investment has to be made.

Is Progress Hattiesburg the best way? You could make the argument either way and have a valid point.

When the Hattiesburg delegation met about the issue, a majority felt that we needed a 5-0 vote from the Council to justify putting the measure on the ballot in November. As meetings with the mayor and council members progressed, I really thought the possible 1% sales tax increase would be accompanied with some property tax relief. Both of those conditions fell short, and if my decision was based on solely on those two factors, I would have to vote no.

However, I’m one of two delegation members who actually live in the city. I’m proud I live in Hattiesburg. I love the Parkhaven Neighborhood in the Avenues. I would live nowhere else. I believe there’s a sense of community you don’t find anywhere else.

From living in the city, I can tell you with absolute certainty that an investment in the core of our city is ten years past due. It’s an investment that will cost a lot of money, money that we won’t find by cutting a few city employees here or eliminating some waste there (though I do think both of those actions are a good start).

From an economic development standpoint, I can tell you that if the central city of a region (the “hub” if you pardon the pun) starts to falter, the entire region will begin to fail. It’s a proven concept, and there are several examples in our own state to which you could point.

Whether or not we want to do it, the investment has to be made.

However, there are certain realities we need to acknowledge. We are overtaxed. Sometimes our services are not what they should be. This proposal would hurt some small businesses in the area.

Furthermore, our people are discontent that we passed a 2% convention center tax on restaurants and liquor several years ago, and we don’t know where that money actually goes. We know it goes to pay off the convention center, but when was the last time a person could get on their computer and see the breakdown of where all the different monies go? How much more do we have to pay on the convention center? Which projects will the money to go to fund next? What accountability and transparency are readily available? These questions could also apply to the 1% tax on hotels.

I will tell you from watching it first-hand that our Mayor did everything he could to make a property tax cut happen for the people living in Hattiesburg. While I haven’t agreed with him on everything, I do not think it’s healthy for people to oppose everything Mayor DuPree proposes just because he is Mayor DuPree. This does not help us to move forward.

Two things are likely.

Progress Hattiesburg will most likely die in the Senate this year.

Mayor DuPree and the entire Hattiesburg City Council will most likely be re-elected next year.

We must decide what our fate will be. Partisan and racial bickering will not save the city and move the region forward. Cooperation and compromise, paired with fiscal responsibility, transparency and accountability, will reverse the cycle. We must choose. If we continually fail to respond to the warning signs of a crumbling infrastructure, then we make that choice, albeit the wrong one.

Hopefully, both sides will continue to talk and churn out a proposal we can all rally around next year. In the mean time, I will commit to helping achieve some transparency on where our tax dollars go- so that basic, ordinary citizens who live on Venetian Way or Arlington Loop or in the Oaks District or in Palmer’s Crossing can again trust that they indeed have a local and state government who works for them. Once that trust is again established, then a proposal such as Progress Hattiesburg will have a more receptive audience.

A Hard Lesson

Yesterday, I left the Capitol thinking we had a real shot at the getting a circuit judge for the 12th Circuit District (Forrest/Perry counties). SB 2756 was amended to include the Forrest/Perry county district (as well as two other circuit districts and three chancery districts) and was funded by the Appropriations Committee. However, the bill went back to Judiciary A for final approval.

The legislature operates on a "deadline" schedule. Tuesday at 8 p.m. was the deadline for House committees to report out Senate bills and vice-versa.

However, during the committee meeting around 4:30 p.m., there was a disagreement between two representatives in a different circuit district on how to draw the judicial sub-district lines within that district. When no solution was reached, one member amended the bill, and with no time for the amended bill to go back to Appropriations for approval prior to the 8 p.m. deadline, the bill died.

Basically, a local disagreement led to four circuit districts and three chancery districts losing their chance to gain a much-needed additional judge. The bill affected 15 counties total.

After fuming a while, I suppose you try and evaluate what happened and take some lesson from the event. As with any setback, you try not to become too cynical about the process, though that is much easier said than done.

The bill appears to be "dead dead," which is slightly more dead than just "dead." So, it looks like we may waiting until next year to see something happen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Circuit Judge Bill Passes Appropriations

SB 2756, which would add an additional circuit judge to the 12th Circuit District, was passed unanimously by the House Appropriations Committee. This is huge for the delegation's efforts to gain another judgeship for the Forrest/Perry County District. The 12th Circuit District has the highest caseload per judge ratio of any circuit district in the state. The problem has only amplified since Katrina.

If passed on the floor of the House, it would then go to conference with the Senate version, which does not include the 12th Circuit District.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Charter School Bill Goes Before Subcommittee Today

Today at 10:30, the Senate version of the charter school bill, which failed in subcommittee earlier this session, will return for a second chance at passage. SB 2721 will go before the Education Charter School Subcommittee. Locally, SB 2721 would clear the path for the new Adept School to achieve charter school status and gain pass-through funding for its students.

Medicaid: The Need for Face-to-Face

Last week an appropriations bill (HB 1601) came up to fund the Medicaid program. The content of the bill mirrored individual bills I had already supported, such as the cigarette tax bill (HB 1013). However, the difference was that near the end of the bill, a provision was added that said no money would be released to the Division of Medicaid for FY 09 until they did away with the face-to-face re-certification program. I opposed this provision, but the entire bill ended up passing 74-41.

In case you didn't know, in 2005, the legislature instituted the face-to-face re-certification for Medicaid recipients to verify there eligibility for the program. Currently, everyone has to see a local Medicaid official every year to be re-certified in the program.

According to the Division of Medicaid, it turns out that 78,000 Mississippians were receiving Medicaid benefits who were not eligible for the program. Once face-to-face was implemented in 2005, this has equated to $236,727,606 of total savings. With the federal-state match that Mississippi receives, Mississippi has a gross savings of $56,814,625. After hiring the people who do re-certification, our total savings comes to a total of $42,919,450.

The House has now sent a bill over to the Senate to do away with the program that has reaped substantial economic benefit.

However, to be fair, the people proposing the program's cancellation point to the burden that is put on working parents to try and bring their children into the Medicaid office once a year. Children whose parents don't bring them in to be re-certified lose eligibility temporarily, which increases the number of uncompensated cases for hospitals. The children do, however, gain back their Medicaid eligibility when their parent finally goes through the face-to-face process. It's not that parents don't care about their children; it's the reality that parents have a lot going on and sometimes a legitimate hardship exists so they cannot renew their child's eligibility on time. The advocates of the program's cancellation also point to the hassle for disabled and elderly people to have a face-to-face visit with a Medicaid representative for re-certification.

This may be true.

However, besides the economic benefit, I think the social benefit of this program is worthwhile. The face-to-face program requires people to take ownership over their affairs. In a time where government is doing more and more things for people (which is not always a bad thing), the danger is that people begin to lose the ability to do things for themselves. We cannot create a cradle-to-grave system where people are not empowered to take responsibility for themselves. We deprive them of their liberty by perpetuating that system.

The goal of government assistance, with obvious exceptions, is to give a hand-up to the disadvantaged, in hopes that they will seize the opportunity and make a better life for themselves. If we can help parents become more involved in their child's life by making sure their child is re-certified every year, then we should.

Do we have a long way to go in health care? Absolutely. Should we seek opportunities to facilitate a better market system to provide better quality to more people? Of course. But should government do everything for those persons receiving benefits? I don't think it's wise for us to create that expectation. Face-to-face requires people take ownership of their personal and family affairs, and that is why we should keep the program.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Immigration Bill SB 2988, The Mississippi Employment Protection Act, Passes

Yesterday, the House passed the Mississippi Employment Protection Act 112-9. It would require employers, starting with large companies this year, mid-sized companies in 2009, and smaller companies in 2010, to use E-verify before hiring any employee. It makes it a felony for a company to knowingly hire and illegal immigrant and for an illegal immigrant to take compensation for work. The exception is work around a private home for non-commercial work.

There is no doubt there are holes in the legislation. I had reservations about how the state would begin to enforce the law (the legislation called for DHS, the Secretary of State, Attorney General's Office, Department of Employment Security; however, the exact coordination of such was not specified) and what to do if a business does not have access to the internet in order to access E-verify. However, the point was well taken that small steps were better than no action at all.

In the end, hopefully we can see positive results over the next couple of years. It is important to remember that we are to use this law to solve the economic, public safety and social problems that come as a result of illegal immigration- but not simply to satisfy a demographic-based fear and the all-too-often human desire to separate "them" from "us."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Black Tuesday

In what will always be known to myself and all of the Southern Miss faithful as Black Tuesday, March 4 will go down as the terrible day that legend Brett Favre retired from the National Football League.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Immigration Bills in the 2008 Session

I've been emailed several times inquiring upon bills dealing with combating illegal immigration. I put together a briefing on the different bills being considered, and those bills are detailed below.

Which ones will see the ink of the Governor's pen? Based on what I have seen thus far, you could make an argument that all, some or none of them will make it all the way through the process (my money would be put on some or none).

The bills being considered are:

SB 2037; puts immigration enforcements on those companies who do business with the state.
(Passed the Senate 46-5; referred to House Judiciary B Committee)

All contracts entered into by agencies and institutions of the State of Mississippi shall include a provision requiring the contractor to be in compliance with all federal and state laws, including Section 31-5-17. A knowing or willing failure to comply with such provision shall be grounds for cancellation of all contracts with the contractor. The contractor shall be liable for any additional costs incurred by the agencies or the state because of the cancellation. The Office of Purchasing, Travel and Fleet Management, as well as the Personal Service Contract Board, shall adopt rules and regulations to carry out this law.

It also punishes public officers who commit a violation, unless reasonable effort to ensure compliance was made.

SB 2564; requires state agencies to verify the lawful presence in the U.S. of any person who applies for state, local or federal public benefits.

(Passed the Senate 52-0; referred to House Judiciary B Committee)

This law would also require any person that applies for public benefits to present an affidavit declaring he/she is in the United States legally. It would make it illegal to make a false statement regarding legal status, and it would require each state agency to present an annual report to the attorney general’s office concerning the compliance of this law.

SB 2823; provides criminal penalties to the aiding and abetting of immigration offenses.
(Passed the Senate 52-0; referred to House Judiciary B Committee)

This law would make it illegal to aid an illegal immigrant or resist cooperating with authorities in sharing information regarding immigration status. It would also allow for cooperative law enforcement between state and local entities regarding immigration matters. It would also require verification of citizenship of persons who are arrested.

SB 2988; creates the Mississippi Employment Protection Act.
(Passed the Senate 52-0; referred to House Judiciary B Committee)

This law would require all employers to use the E-verify system when hiring employees. It would exempt those employers who use E-verify from any liability, investigation or suit arising from this law. It also requires third-party employers that conduct business in Mississippi to also provide proof of registration and verification to any Mississippi employer with whom they do business. It gives employers to a July 1, 2011 deadline.

It exempts anyone who hires people to work on his/her private property for non-commercial purposes. It will make it a felony for any person to accept or perform employment for compensation knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien.

SB 3034; enhances the penalty for creation or use of false ID and creates crimes of aiding, abetting or transporting an unauthorized alien.
(Passed the Senate 52-0; referred to House Judiciary B Committee)

This law mixes some direct and indirect ways of combating illegal immigration. It enhances the penalty for illegal immigrants using false identification. It charges them with a felony and fines them up to $10,000 and/or 10 years in prison. It also makes it illegal to transport or harbor an unauthorized alien. Some vague exceptions include providing medical care, legal services, food and shelter to those immigrants. It would also not prohibit or restrict private charities from providing health services.

HB 1327
(Passed House 81-38; referred to Senate Economic Development Committee)

This bill would create a task force to study the impact of immigration, both legal and illegal, on poverty in Mississippi.

Roots Reunion Show

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to attend the biannual Mississippi Roots Reunion show at the Saenger. It's a great show of different musical genres, from blue grass to gospel to blues. Best of all, admission is free. Molly Thomas headlined the show this year, and as always, it was a solid event.

I'd encourage everyone to catch the next show this fall.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

New Entrepreneurial Development Website

Friday, I left Jackson and passed through Meridian on the way home to Hattiesburg. Well, it wasn't really on the way, but I had to take care of some things for my grandfather, so it worked out alright.

Anyway, while I was there, I had lunch with Chris Reed, who is one of the project managers of the WIRED initiative at the Montgomery Institute. Chris and I worked together when I interned at the Institute during the summer and fall of 2005. One of the projects we worked on was the Mississippi Entrepreneurial Alliance, which sought to network Mississippi's entrepreneurs with the resources and agencies that could assist them.

The website that has just launched (the current site serves East Mississippi/West Alabama) has caught the attention of many people. A couple of weeks ago, the Mississippi Development Authority announced it was providing funds to take the website statewide. It's great to see MDA place greater focus on small business and entrepreneurship.

Chris has done an amazing job with its development, and I'm looking forward to seeing many entrepreneurs take advantage of this valuable resource as it continues to evolve.

The website is if you have a few minutes to check it out.