Miss. lawmakers approve 3 job-creation proposals

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — The Mississippi Legislature approved incentives Friday for three projects that could create about 4,750 private-sector jobs, one-fifth of those from a company that was courted by several other states.

Calisolar, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., plans to build a plant in Columbus, Miss., to make silicon metal for use in automotive parts, consumer electronics and energy products, including solar panels. Developers said the Calisolar project — sought by Ohio, among others — should create 951 jobs with an average annual salary of $45,000, plus benefits.

John Correnti, chairman of the board for Calisolar, is the former chief executive officer of a steel mill that opened in Columbus, Miss., in 2007. He told legislators Friday that he chose Mississippi because of the willingness of local employees to work hard.

“The reason we’re coming here, and I’m going to be frank, is the Mississippi farm boys and the farm girls,” Correnti said. “I wouldn’t trade a Mississippi farm boy or farm girl for any Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, South American.”

During Friday’s eight-hour special session, lawmakers approved just over $175 million in bonds — $75.25 million for the Calisolar project and $100 million for HCL CleanTech Inc., which wants to build four plants to turn wood chips into cellulosic sugars that can be used in pet foods, cosmetics, lubricants and other products.

HCL CleanTech says it plans to create about 800 jobs with an average salary of $67,000, plus benefits.

Legislators also expanded an existing tax rebate program to help Huntington Ingalls add 3,000 shipbuilding jobs on the Gulf Coast.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday that he would call lawmakers into special session, then he announced the projects Wednesday.

The projects appeared to be on a fast track Friday, but debate extended when members of the Legislative Black Caucus pushed to include $2 million in bonds for a study of how many publicly-backed contracts are awarded to firms owned by minorities or women.

A decade-old state law says the Mississippi Development Authority — the state’s job-seeking agency — should examine diversity in contracting, but lawmakers said a study has never been funded.

“Some of us oppose state-mandated quotas on hiring,” said Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, who is white.

Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, who is black, said black Mississippians have lagged in economic power for generations, dating back to slavery.

“Nobody is asking for any quotas” Bailey said.

A newly formed group called the Mississippi Alliance for Diversity in Public Contracting cited state data showing that in 2010, less than 1 percent of money in public contracts was spent with minority-owned firms. Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black.

The House passed one bill Friday that included the $2 million for the contracting study. The Senate passed a bill without the $2 million. After several hours, the House accepted the Senate bill.

Barbour stopped lawmakers in Capitol hallways and told them he’d veto the bill if it included the $2 million because he didn’t want the state to take on long-term debt for it.

“In the eight years I’ve been governor, no one has ever proposed to me an appropriation to pay for this kind of study,” Barbour told reporters. “I’m not going to ask the taxpayers of Mississippi to pay for 20 years to pay off a study.”

MDA executives said the bond request for the Calisolar project includes a $59.5 million loan for equipment and a building that would be owned by Lowndes County and leased by the company. The package also has an $11.25 million grant for infrastructure such as roads and utility lines and $4.5 million to help train employees at the plant.

HCL CleanTech plans to move its headquarters from Oxford, N.C., to Olive Branch, Miss. It proposes putting processing plants near Grenada, Booneville, Hattiesburg and Natchez — areas with plentiful supplies of pine trees. MDA officials said the office in Olive Branch and the processing plant in Grenada could open in 2012, and the three larger plants could open in 2015, 2017 and 2019. They didn’t specify which site would open in which year.

The $100 million bond package for the HCL CleanTech project includes a $95 million loan for equipment and buildings, plus $5 million for training, infrastructure or other equipment.

Huntington Ingalls is one of the largest private employers in Mississippi, but it has shed some jobs in recent years. The revised tax rebates for the addition of 3,000 jobs will become part of MDA’s existing Advantage Jobs Incentive Program, which helps companies that create jobs that pay above-average wages. MDA said the rebates will cost the state $15 million over 10 years.