Stories Written by Bobby Harrison

news_education_greenBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Superintendents and local school boards across the state were learning late Wednesday that they will have to decide almost immediately whether they want to rehire teachers for the 2014-15 school year.

School leaders originally thought they had until May 1 to provide non-renewal notices to teachers they did not want to retain or could not afford to re-employ for the upcoming school year.

Under state law, the deadline to send out non-renewal notices to teachers is determined by when the governor signs the education funding bill. Districts have until April 15 or 10 days after the governor signs the education funding bill into law – whichever is longer.

According to Mississippi Association of Superintendents Executive Director Sam Bounds and Pete Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Education, the education funding bill was filed in the House clerk’s office on Monday – meaning they originally thought that the districts had until May 1 to give teachers the notices. But apparently the bill was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant on April 15, but not filed by his office in the House clerk’s office until Monday.

Smith and Bounds said the law is clear that the non-renewal notice deadline is based on when the bill is signed by the governor not filed.

Bryant’s office could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.


cooper-tire-logoBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law Wednesday legislation making Cooper Tire eligible to receive $20 million in state funds to help with modernization of its Tupelo manufacturing facility.

The Republican governor signed the legislation, which was passed during the final week of the recently completed session, in his Capitol office.

No formal event was held for the signing, but Bryant said the legislation was important to maintain jobs “for 1,300 families in Northeast Mississippi.” Under the terms of the agreement, for Cooper to receive the funds, it must maintain 1,300 jobs at the Tupelo plant.

Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper will receive the funds through the issuance of state bonds that will be paid off over a period of years. Under the bond bill, Cooper would be eligible for $8 million during the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, followed by $6 million in each of the next two years.

Cooper has committed to expending $140 million at one or more of its plants, which include two others in the United States and others worldwide, to modernize machinery and to become more efficient. The belief is that the state funds, along with $18 million in local property tax breaks over a 10-year period, will entice Cooper to expend those funds in Lee County.

David Rumbarger, chief executive officer for the Lee County-based Community Development Foundation, said the state, local governmental officials and Cooper are working on an agreement that will stipulate that Cooper will be eligible for the state aide if the company commits to maintaining at least 1,300 jobs and to investing the $140 million in the modernization.

Rumbarger said the hope is to have the agreement in place by the end of June.




By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Mississippi teachers will get a $2,500 raise over the next two years under legislation signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Phil Bryant.

New teachers will get even larger raises under the proposal.

The average pay for a starting teacher will increase from the current level of $30,900 to $33,390 on July 1, and to $34,390 the following year.

“The real winners are the children,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn. “We hope this plan puts a good teacher in every classroom.”

Bryant, who signed the legislation at the state Capitol, said he particularly liked the fact that in year three of the new law teachers will be eligible for one-year bonuses based on school performance. But after the bill signing, Bryant acknowledged, as many legislators did when they passed the pay package during the recently completed session, that in future years a solution must be found to provide merit-based pay to good teachers in bad schools.

Bryant expressed optimism that a pilot merit pay program being carried out in districts across the state will come up with methods to provide performance-based pay to individual teachers.

Both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gunn, along with numerous legislators and a few educators and those associated with groups that represent educators, attended the bill signing.

“This legislation makes teacher pay more competitive to attract the best individuals to the classroom,” Reeves said.

Gunn proposed a pay raise for Mississippi’s roughly 33,000 teachers in December before the 2014 session began.

The House had passed a $5,000 proposal offered by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, in the 2013 session, but that proposal died in the Senate. Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate said the state could not afford the pay raise.

The proposal will provide a $1,500 pay raise for the upcoming school year beginning July 1 and an additional $1,000 the following year.

And then legislation calls for teachers and faculty to be eligible for yearly bonuses, based on school performance for the school year starting in 2016.

The cost of the first year of the raise is $64.6 million.

In total, counting the costs of the pay raise, $70 million has been added to the Mississippi Adequate Education, which pays the state’s share of the basics of operating local school districts.

But even with the costs of the pay raise added to the amount provided by the state, local school districts still are receiving less funds than they got in 2008, before the recession hit, resulting in dramatic cuts to education.

In the 2008 fiscal year, the Legislature appropriated $2.257 billion to K-12 education, compared to $2.205 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant jokes with Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Cindy Searcy at the state Capitol on Monday prior to signing a bill that provides appropriation for the Department of Public Safety, including $6.9 million to train 60 new troopers. The bill was one of several law enforcement-themed bills signed by the governor. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant jokes with Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Cindy Searcy at the state Capitol on Monday prior to signing a bill that provides appropriation for the Department of Public Safety, including $6.9 million to train 60 new troopers. The bill was one of several law enforcement-themed bills signed by the governor. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Three bills that supporters say will make Mississippians safer were signed into law Monday by Gov. Phil Bryant during ceremonies in his state Capitol office.

The bills would:

• Add 16 assistant district attorneys across the state.

• Fund a new trooper school to add 60 officers to the ranks of the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

• Take DNA samples from people arrested on violent felony charges to run tests to try to determine if they might have been involved in other crimes.

The bill is known as Katie’s Law – named after Katie Sepich who was brutally attacked and murdered in New Mexico in 2003. Since then, her parents have advocated states passing the DNA-testing law.

“Last year I pledged that this legislative session would focus on public safety, and these bills are a reflection of that effort,” Bryant said in a news release. “Taken with the criminal justice reforms we enacted earlier this year, this package of bills will ensure that Mississippi is better prepared to execute the first duty of government – protecting public safety.”

Earlier this year the Republican governor signed a far- reaching, bipartisan bill designed to curb growth in the state’s prison budget by giving judges more authority in some instances to impose alternative sentences like house arrest or drug courts. That legislation also is designed to result in longer sentences for certain offenders, primarily those convicted of violent crimes,

“The governor said this would be a session about public safety and he delivered on that promise,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who along with Highway Patrol troopers, district attorneys and others attended the bill signings.

Bryant had said during the session, which ended earlier this month, that funding a new trooper school was critical because “if we don’t have troopers on the roads, people will die.”

The Legislature provided $6.9 million to train and equip 60 new troopers. There is a shortfall of about 150 troopers statewide, resulting in the Highway Patrol having to focus on working wrecks and providing little time to enforcement, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz.

Earlier in the session, there were concerns by members of the legislative leadership about appropriating additional funds to Public Safety because of questions about the agency’s management of its budget. The final budget agreement provides the agency an additional $20 million to not only fund the trooper school, but to provide new equipment and to make upgrades to the state Crime Lab.

But the Legislature enacted additional oversight over the DPS budget in the process.

Santa Cruz said Monday he believes any disagreements between the legislative leadership and his agency have been addressed.

“My goal is to work well with everybody,” he said.

District 1, located in Northeast Mississippi, as well as District 16, which includes Clay and Oktibehha counties, will receive an additional assistant district attorney under the legislation signed into law Monday by the governor.

Applications for the new trooper school will be available May 1 at the DPS main building in Jackson and at each district office. A person also can call DPS Human Resources at 601 987-1264 to receive an application through the mail.

The last trooper school was authorized by the 2011 Legislature. The goal is to start the next school in November and have graduation next April.

other_state_govBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant says he will sign into law Tuesday morning the $2,500 pay raise the Legislature approved during the 2014 session for Mississippi’s classroom teachers.

The governor’s office announced in a new release Monday afternoon that Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will attend the bill signing in the state Capitol.

Gunn proposed a pay raise for Mississippi’s roughly 33,000 teachers in December before the 2014 session began.

The House had passed a $5,000 proposal offered by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, in the 2013 session, but that proposal died in the Senate. Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate said the state could not afford the pay raise.

The proposal passed by the Legislature earlier this year and pending the governor’s signature would provide a $1,500 pay raise for the upcoming school year beginning July 1 and an additional $1,000 the following year.

The legislation calls for teachers and faculty to be eligible for yearly bonuses, based on school performance for the school year starting in 2016.



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The state’s eight public universities received during the just-completed 2014 legislative session their second year of a three-year commitment of bonds to finance long-term construction projects.

The Legislature approved bonds for the schools totaling $92.8 million.

During the 2013 session, the Legislature approved $96.5 million in bonds for the universities.

Under the 2013 commitment agreement, the universities are slated to receive $68.6 million in bonds in 2015.

University leaders have said they like the three-year commitment because it allows them to better plan for the long-term capital needs without the yearly doubt of how much they would receive in bonds from the Legislature.

In 2012, legislative leaders could not agree on the size of the bond bill, resulting in one not being enacted.

“The projects funded through the bond bill are very important to Mississippi public universities,” said Hank M. Bounds, commissioner of higher education.

“The Legislature is to be commended for providing the resources for the second year of a three-year plan. The resources will be used to build and renovate learning and student support facilities that will help provide students with the classroom and extracurricular experiences necessary to graduate and begin building successful careers.”

The bond bill includes $7 million for continued repair and renovation of Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University and $400,00 for the preplanning of the new Department of Animal and Dairy and Poultry Science at Mississippi State.

At the University of Mississippi, $14 million in bonds will be provided for the repair and renovations of Garland, Hedleston and Mayes Halls – all residence halls.

Plus, $30.5 million is provided for phase two of the new School of Medicine classroom building on the Jackson campus.

Bounds, said, “Of particular importance to all Mississippians is the continued funding for the new medical school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which will enable us to expand the medical school and train more physicians to serve Mississippi families.”

Bonds going to the other universities consist of:

• $9 million for Alcorn State.

• $14.5 million for Delta State University.

• $3 million for Jackson State.

• $4.9 million for Mississippi University for Women.

• $4.5 million for Mississippi Valley State University.

• $5 million for the University of Southern Mississippi.

The bond bill package, totaling $241.7 million, including funds for state buildings, community colleges, economic development projects and local projects, is pending Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature. He must decide whether to sign or veto the bond bills by late next week.

other_state_newsBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Len Blanton of Tupelo, chief financial officer for Nesco Electrical Distributors, must have seemed like a good fit when former Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to the state College Savings Plan of Mississippi Board of Directors.

After all, the Tupelo resident had an accounting background and had been interested in education opportunities while working through various civic organizations and even working as an ACT tutor.

Blanton said he assumed that is why Barbour appointed him to the state board that oversees two programs designed to help parents prepare financially for their children’s higher education.

And that is the reason Gov. Phil Bryant re-nominated Blanton, 43, to the College Savings Board this year. Blanton was one of eight Northeast Mississippians confirmed by the state Senate during the recently completed session to the various boards and commissions that oversee various state agencies and programs.

Most all of the people confirmed for the 2014 session were nominated by the governor, like Blanton, though not all. For instance, Karen Sue Elam of Oxford was confirmed by the Senate to a post on the newly created Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, after being nominated by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Elam, a consultant on regulatory matters for food associations, is set to serve until June 30, 2016, on the Board that will decide whether to grant charter school applications.

Blanton’s second term on the College Savings Plan Board is scheduled to run until June 30, 2019.

“Education is important for me as it needs to be for everybody,” said Blanton, when asked why he serves on the board. “I have a keen interest in making sure educational opportunities are available for everyone.”

Blanton, as a member of the College Savings Board, has faced some difficult decisions in recent years. In 2012, the Board opted to halt new enrollments in the Mississippi Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Program because of a funding shortfall.

MPACT, created in 1997 by the Legislature, allows parents and grandparents to pay current tuition levels for their children’s and grandchildren’s higher education in later years.

The board was concerned that if funds were not available to pay the tuition costs for the enrollees that it would be the responsibility of Mississisppi’s taxpayers to make up the difference.

But earlier this year, with the blessing of the legislative leadership and Bryant, the Board voted to reopen the program.

Blanton said he supported the decision. He said it was the right thing to do to ensure more educational opportunities for Mississippians and because the costs to the state could have been higher if new enrollees, and thus new money, were not coming into the program.

The board will reopen the program after changes are made that most likely will increase the cost of enrollment.

Under state law, most of the boards pay members $40 per day when they meet and the pay is limited to a certain number of days per year. They also receive mileage for their trips to Jackson for the meeting.



Other Northeast Mississippians confirmed by the Senate to various state posts during the 2014 session are:

Ken Lippincott of Tupelo, nominated by the governor to a post on the Board of Medical Licensure for a term ending June 30, 2020.

Mariel Wayne Mitchell of Belmont, nominated by the governor to the Board of Funeral Services for a term ending June 30, 2017.

Melissa Ratliff Knight of Tupelo, nominated by the governor to the Board of Examiners for Social Workers and Marriage and Family Therapists for a term ending June 30, 2018.

Ashli Elizabeth Brown Johnson of Starkville, nominated by Mississippi State University to serve as state chemist.

Rodney Andrew Pearson of Starkville, nominated by the governor to the Information Technology Services Authority for a term ending June 30, 2019.

Jody Bryan of Starkville, nominated by the governor to the Veterans Home Purchase Board for a term ending June 30, 2018.



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – A national reporter asked Tuesday during a conference call how incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran’s impressive $1.7 million in campaign contributions during the first three months of the year compared to efforts in other Mississippi races, such as for governor.

Cochran campaign manger Kirk Sims replied it was unprecedented.

“What we have seen the last quarter is a record amount of money raised,” Sims said.

No question, Sims and the rest of the Cochran campaign have reason to be buoyed by the amount of money the campaign raised during the January through March reporting period – with more than $1 million of that total coming from Mississippians.

But the showing pales in comparison to the fundraising efforts conducted by Republican challenger Haley Barbour and Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgove in the 2003 gubernatorial campaign.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30 of 2003, Barbour, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist, raised $3.7 million. During that quarter, Barbour received more contributions than had previously been raised for an entire political campaign in Mississippi.

In 1991, incumbent Gov. Ray Mabus raised $3.6 million in a losing effort against Kirk Fordice.

During the same three-month period in 2003, the incumbent Musgrove raised an impressive $2.6 million.

For the entire 2003 year, according to records on file with the Secretary of State’s office, Barbour raised $10.9 million and spent $11.3 million – not counting unreported expenditures from out of state groups that do not report contributions and expenditures.

Barbour is now working from one of those groups to ensure Cochran’s success against state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the June 3 Republican primary and most likely against Democrat Travis Childers of Booneville in the November general election.

In 2003, Musgrove finished the year with contributions totaling $6.7 million, which would have been a record if not for Barbour’s efforts, and expenditures of $7.7 million.

It should be pointed out that state campaign finance rules for offices like governor are significantly more relaxed than the laws in federal elections that candidates for U.S. Senate must follow. There is no limit on the amount an individual or political action committee can donate to a candidate for state office. On the federal level, individuals and PACs are limited to $5,000 for the primary and for the general election.

In the last competitive U.S. Senate race in 2008, Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo raised $6 million and spent $6.4 million in defeating Musgrove, who raised and spent about $2.7 million.

other_state_newsBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The $23 million in bonds approved for the state’s 15 community colleges by the recently completed 2014 session of the Legislature will fall far short of addressing all the capital needs of the two-year schools.

A five-year capital improvement plan submitted to the state Department of Finance and Administration cites $156 million in needs for preplanning, repair and renovation and other capital improvements at the community colleges.

It is important to note that in addition to the community colleges being awarded $23 million in bonds to finance long-term construction projects, the Legislature provided an additional $3 million for routine repairs and renovations.

As state revenue has grown in recent years, providing more funding options, legislators have sought to end the practice of using the sale of bonds that the state normally pays off over a 20-year period to finance routine repair and renovation projects.

Community colleges received a total of $250.9 million in funding for the upcoming fiscal year, starting July 1, from the 2014 Legislature, an increase of $11 million from the previous year.

That figure does not include the $23 million in bond funds for long-term construction projects. Community colleges received $25 million in bond funds in the 2013 session.

“We were hoping for $25 million again,” said Itawamba Community College President Mike Eaton. “But we are appreciative of the $23 million.”

The community colleges have a formula for divvying up the bond funds, based in part on student enrollment.

Fulton-based ICC is set to garner $1.72 million while Booneville-based Northeast is slated to receive $1.29 million. Northwest, based in Senatobia, but with branches in Lafayette County and also serving counties surrounding Oxford, will get $1.95 million.

Because the funds only go so far to fund often-expensive capital projects, Eaton said community colleges routinely must make a decision “to stack” bond proceeds from year-to-year to tackle larger projects.

“The good news is for the most part our college is in pretty good shape” as far as capital needs, Eaton said.

The college in August opened a new health science building on its Tupelo campus, which increased capacity in various medical fields, and is converting the health science building in Fulton to academic classes.

The five-year plan cites major needs for ICC as:

• $283,750 for repairs to the multipurpose building in Tupelo, which includes the cafeteria.

• $454,000 for repairs to the Technical Education Building in Fulton.

• $1.6 million for work on Buildings C and E in Tupelo.

Eaton said much of the work is needed because the buildings are older and need roof repairs and other renovations related to the age of the structures.

The needs cited at Northeast are:

• $3 million for career and technical buildings renovations.

• $3.4 million for Phrase III work on the Corinth campus.

• $3.3 million for Stringer Hall restoration and renovation.

At Northwest the cited need was $3.2 million for a cosmetology center.

Gov. Phil Bryant is slated to act on the bond package, including funds for community colleges, next week.



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant signed three bills into law Wednesday designed to curb union activity in the state.

“Mississippi won’t tolerate any activity like intimidation,” said Bryant moments after a bills signing in his office attended by Speaker Philip Gunn, Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.

He added, “We wouldn’t allow someone to block an entrance to a business or intimidate that business into allowing union membership. I think it’s important to let them know that this administration, this Legislature, is not supporting any unions of any type at any time in Mississippi’s business or public sector.”

Turner and Collins chair their respective Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committees where the bills originated.

Collins said the legislation is important to the whole state, but especially to Northeast Mississippi because of Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Blue Springs. There have been efforts to unionize other auto manufacturing plants in the South, including Nissan in Canton.

The legislation:

• Prohibist protests and demonstrations that blocked entrance and exit to a business or residence.

• Prohibits the intimidation of a business by a union.

• Prohibits local government from passing laws that would enhance likelihood of a company unionizing.

“This levels the playing field and puts employees and employers on the same playing field,” said Turner, who said the legislation “reaffirms more than anything else that Mississippi is a right to work state” where people cannot be forced to join a union.

Opponents of the legislation during the 2014 session said the bills were not needed. Mississippi is already a right to work state and union activity is minimal at best.

They said supporters of the legislation are not interested in a level playing field, but want to ensure unions remain weak in the state. In both the House and Senate, the Republican majorities voted down amendments that would protect an employee from retaliation by the employer for engaging in union activity.

The amendment was defeated by a voice vote in the Senate and by 63-57 in the House.

Byrant said Mississippi’s minimal union activity is a major economic development incentive to companies looking to expand.