By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Legislature approved $175.3 million in bonds on Friday to lure two manufacturers to Mississippi, including one that could employ 200 workers in Booneville.
The bond bills, which Gov. Haley Barbour said will create 1,750 jobs, passed both the House and Senate by overwhelming margins in a one-day special session.
But during often-emotional debate, many members, primarily African-Americans, expressed concerns that black Mississippians were being left out of recent economic development efforts – both in terms of regions where the companies locate and businesses that contract with the new companies.
“We’re Mississippians too,” said Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni.
Economic development officials said the company, not the state, selects sites for projects.
The legislation will provide $100 million in bonds, $95 million in the form of a loan and a $5 million grant, for HCL Clean Tech to develop manufacturing plants in Mississippi to convert wood chips to commercial-grade sugar. One of the plants could be located near Booneville. HCL will employ 800 people and invest $1 billion in the state.
The other project was for Calisolar, which will locate in the Columbus area and build silicon metal used in areas ranging from solar cell producers to the automotive sector. Calisolar is committed to creating 950 jobs and investing $600 million. The legislation provided Calisolar a $59.5 million loan and $15.8 million grant.
Also included in the special session legislation was a tax rebate of as much as $15 million over 10 years for Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula if it adds 3,000 jobs.
Black legislators raised the issue that minority businesses, including those owned by white women, were not hired for state work or for work by many new companies benefiting from state incentives. A study by the Mississippi Alliance for Diversity in Public Contracting claimed that during the past six years contracts awarded to minority businesses by the state were less than one-half percent of the total.
The House, led by Ways and Means Chair Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, tried to include language to require “a disparity study.” Watson said similar studies in other states have looked at the pool of minority business owners to determine if there were additional opportunities for them to obtain state contracts.
But Republicans, such as Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said the study could lead to racial quotas. Barbour said he opposed the study because it would be funded by issuing debt through bonds.
The Senate killed the disparity study, and the legislation passed with no study provision. Watson said he had no intention of killing legislation that would bring jobs to the state.