Thursday, December 26, 2013

Legislative session policies sometimes predictable, sometimes not

*First appeared in the Dec. 26 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

It’s two days before Christmas as I write this final column of 2013. C-SPAN is on the tube, and I’m suffering from the seasonal cold…which reminds me that today is my last day to sign up for Obamacare and be covered at the start of the new year.

Bah-humbug.

Healthcare is going to be one of the big items in the 2014 Legislative Session: Should we expand the Medicaid program? How much money does the Division of Medicaid actually need? And so on.

Education issues have already bubbled up, with some calling for across-the-board teacher pay raises. One article I saw said teachers haven’t gotten raises in seven years, but that’s not true (unless someone isn’t following the law…and then we’ve got another problem). Mississippi law (§37-19-7) requires teaches to get a bump in pay every year, and you get more based on tenure and education level.

According to the Miss. Dept. of Education, the base salary for an entry-level teacher (that is, with a bachelor’s degree and no full-time teaching experience) is $30,900. Compare that amount to the average entry-level salary for all occupations in Mississippi - $17,730, according to the Miss. Dept. of Employment Security. In addition to base pay, public school teachers get state health insurance and a pretty sweet state retirement.

I’ve heard rumblings from others about pay raises for regular state employees coupled with refrains that “state employees haven’t gotten raises in five, six, seven years.” I guess these folks have turned a blind eye to the fact the Legislature and individual state agencies authorize pay raises for employees every single year. For example, about $12 million worth of pay raises were given this year, and nearly double that, or $23 million, were given last fiscal year.

(By the way: I am not against pay raises. I am simply for a full presentation of facts.)

It remains to be seen whether gun laws or a focus on mental health issues will arise in 2014, as a result of the Newtown shootings.

What is not a mystery, though, is that the T1 Coalition will make a splash as it advocates increasing the gas tax as a way to generate more revenue to maintain Mississippi roads and bridges. To my knowledge, no statewide elected official has endorsed raising taxes in 2014.

Last week, a study committee released recommendations on ways to cut costs in the state’s correctional system without jeopardizing the safety of law-abiding citizens. It’s hard to see a scenario in which the 2014 Legislative Session doesn’t at least consider several of those proposals, if for no other reason than to identify savings and redirect those funds to other priority areas like education (see also, “pay raises”).

Of course, all of these issues relate back to my personal favorite issue: The state budget. Teacher and/or state employee pay raises; Medicaid expansion; actual Medicaid costs; corrections reform; and even mental health reform comes with a major price tag. It will be interesting to see these policies shape up within the context of a limited state budget and a restrained appetite for bonding.

This is just a snapshot of issues to be discussed and, as any seasoned session-watcher knows, is by no means all-inclusive of the topics du jour. There will be issues that arise during the session that no one is thinking about today (and no one will care about tomorrow). That’s why legislative sessions are always exciting ways to ring in the new year.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and see you in this space next year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On the first day of Session, my Legislature gave to me…

*First published in the Dec. 19 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

It’s mid-December already. Can you believe it? We’re one step closer to welcoming St. Nick into our houses and legislators into our capitol. This column (the third installment of a four-part series on the legislative session) will look at the political dynamics coming Jan. 7, the first day of the 2014 Regular Legislative Session.

I’ve been feeling some major Christmas spirit this year, so I’d like to look at session politics through a “12 Days of Christmas” prism.

On the first week of session, legislators will give to us their best partridge (in a pear tree?) impressions. The famous bird of song has an aversion to high places and long flights, and it doesn’t build its nest in trees (too risky). Like this bird, I imagine most legislators will exercise caution not to fly too high initially while they scope out the political dynamics of 2014.

Don’t expect to see any peace-bearing turtle doves gliding through the hallways of the State Capitol this year, either. These second gifts of Christmas likely won’t perch at the dome, considering the upcoming race between Jones County native State Senator Chris McDaniel and incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran; partisan fights over Obamacare; and so on. Remember that we’re inching closer to re-election year (2015), which means everything will be weighed against its campaign implications.

With so much at stake this year, you can bet your bottom dollar the session will be chock full of French hens. (Finally we have found a Christmas gift appropriate for legislative proceedings!) I guarantee we’ll see passionate floor speeches, hyper-partisan legislation introduced, the works. I’d wager a few legislators will play the role of calling (or, more accurately, “Colly”) birds which are known for reacting favorably toward shiny bills (hey, it takes money to run for re-election, right?).

There’s always some kissing of the rings at the Capitol, which leads us to our five golden rings of Christmas. This time-honored tradition usually reaps its own reward, much like the production of the eggs from the six geese-a-laying. You’ve got to sow seeds of political goodwill to get any legislation passed, regardless of the bill’s individual merit. The payoff? An egg or two in your favor.

Capitol staff (lawyers, policy wonks, budgeteers, committee assistants, and others) will be working hard to keep the legislative swans a-swimming along as peacefully as possible, and for that they should be commended.

Lobbyists and advocates will do their best milk-maid impressions to squeeze out legislative support for their various clients, interests, and causes. It’s not a popular nor easy job, but in many ways very necessary to keeping the government wheels a-spinning.

If you’re wondering where one might find ladies dancing and lords-a-leaping during the session, that’s easy: At any of the numerous legislative receptions held during the session. Receptions are a must for capitol dwellers, as they provide a double whammy – a place to network and a place to get free food and drink.

We’re sure to see more than eleven pipers piping about bills, initiatives, and so on. Bagpipes have traditionally been used in a military context, and it seems the political equivalent is hosting press conferences to announce the onset of a political battle. Expect lots of press conferences, events, and other media-driven bagpipes during these next three months.

Much like pipers, drummers drumming have played crucial roles by providing a steady marching beat to armed forces. This session, be on the lookout for anyone who’s not marching to the beat of his army’s drum cadence, as that is usually a sign of political unrest.

My disclaimer, of course, is that I make these tongue-in-cheek comparisons to give readers a somewhat humorous look at the political dynamics in every legislative session – regardless of which political party is currently in power. The capitol culture is an environment in which quirks are the norm, personalities rule the day, but, importantly, those in positions of power truly want to help their constituents. This shared goal is what makes the capitol dome go ‘round, and it is what drives the adoption of policies that help Mississippians from the top to the bottom of the state.

The process isn’t always pretty, but the fact that good legislation is adopted is, you could say, something of a Christmas miracle.




Thursday, December 12, 2013

Third time’s the charm: An overview of the Mississippi State Capitol

*First appeared in the Dec. 12 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

As a precursor to the quickly approaching legislative session, I have decided to focus my December columns on four main components of the session: The people; the place; the policies; and the politics. Last week in this space, we met some of the people running your state Capitol; this week, let’s learn a little about the building itself.

Located on the site of the old state penitentiary, the Mississippi State Capitol (also known as the “new” capitol) has been the seat of the state’s government since 1903. Although three capitol buildings have been erected in Jackson, only two of them remain: The current New Capitol and the Old Capitol, which, from 1839 to 1903, served as our official statehouse. It has since been turned into a lovely museum.

Fun fact about the Old Capitol Museum: In 2005, it sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina and had to be closed while renovations were underway. To commemorate its re-opening, the 2009 Legislative Session gaveled in at this building.

The (new) State Capitol was designed by St. Louis-born architect Theodore Link, and its construction cost in excess of $1 million. Interestingly, the bill was paid by back taxes from a lawsuit settlement with the Illinois Central Railroad.

The New Capitol seems to live up to Gov. A.H. Longino’s famous description, in which he calls the building a “reflex of the State’s public spirit, pride, and integrity.”

Modeled after the U.S. Capitol building, the New Capitol is a Beaux Arts-style building designed to house all branches of Mississippi state government. These days, however, the Capitol is the Legislature’s playground (with the exception of the ceremonial office of the Governor on the third floor and a small office for the Secretary of State).

Given my background as a governor’s staff member, I have spent many days, nights, and early mornings in that ceremonial office. It’s a beautiful, if not gritty, office that has an unexpected elevator.

On to dimensions. According to the legislative website, the “Capitol has a width of 402 feet, and the dome has a height of 180 feet. The interior Rotunda dome contains 750 lights which illuminate the blind-folded lady representing ‘Blind Justice’ and four figures that played a role in Mississippi history: two Native Americans, a European explorer and a Confederate soldier. An eagle adorns the top of the central dome and is made of copper coated with gold leaf. The eagle is 8-feet high and 15-feet wide.”

Unofficially, I’ve always been told that the copper coated eagle on top of our Capitol dome faces south – not north – in a show of post-Civil War defiance against the U.S. Capitol. I have no idea if that’s true.

If you visit the New Capitol, you’ll walk into the “front” of the building (the front faces south, like the eagle) and enter the first floor. In addition to the Capitol Gift Shop (which you should really check out), the Hall of Governors is located on this level. Portraits of the state’s governors since the creation of the Mississippi Territory in 1798 adorn the hallways; you simply cannot walk down the corridor without feeling powerful and occasionally creepy gubernatorial stares.

Fun fact about two pictures in the hallways: Walter Leake, Mississippi’s 3rd governor, is an ancestor of the 63rd chief executive, Haley Barbour. Gov. Leake’s portrait is featured in the background of Gov. Barbour’s painting.

Going up a level, you’ll find my favorite floor, as it is home to the former State Library and former Supreme Court chambers which are both now used as committee meeting rooms. Primarily these rooms are used for money committees – that is, the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees in the House and the Finance and Appropriations committees in the Senate. The Rotunda area on floor two doubles as an unofficial lobbyist hangout.

On the third floor rests the power, as this level holds the Legislative chambers (both House and Senate); the ceremonial office of the Governor, and the offices of the Lt. Gov. and the Speaker of the House. The fourth floor is home to the Capitol press corps and entrances for public viewing of the House and Senate chambers.

I haven’t even mentioned some of the coolest Capitol features, such as the “stables” (literally the old horse stables – now the Capitol caf√© area) and the myriad materials used throughout the building such as marble, faux marble (Scagliola), and beautiful stained glass. To appreciate these aspects fully, you’ll need to see it firsthand.

The New Capitol is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for self-guided tours. Free guided tours are offered each day at 9:30 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 2:30 p.m. If you’ve got a group, give the Capitol folks a call at 601-359-3114 to arrange a special tour (or email tours@house.ms.gov).

Making time to tour the statehouse is, well, a capitol idea.

Friday, December 6, 2013

‘Tis the season for meeting the people of your state capitol

*First appeared in the Dec. 5 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Ah, December. The month we band together to sing songs about sleigh bells and snowmen from colder, foreign, and perhaps fictitious lands up north. December means family jaunts to singing Christmas trees, holiday cantatas, and festivals of light. Tacky sweater parties rival sequin-heavy cocktail hours as the premiere events for fashionable holiday revelers.

This most wonderful time of the year brings with it almost obligatory seasonal fights: Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays. Christ the Savior is Born versus Santa Clause is Coming to Town. And let’s not forget the separation-of-church-and-state hullabaloo about those pesky Nativity scenes displayed annually at the state capitol.

…which reminds me of something else, actually. December isn’t just a harbinger of gift giving and receiving; it also means the Legislature, like Santa, is coming to town.

In honor of the upcoming January session, I’d like to dedicate December’s columns to four components of capitol goings-on: The people, the place, the policies, and the politics.

If you aren’t familiar with the many faces of the statehouse, rest easy: ‘Tis the season to meet some of the people at your state capitol.

Let’s start with Kenny, the elevator operator who has been a Capitol fixture for as long as I can remember. Kenny takes tourists, legislators, and staff members to their desired floors, entertaining his guests with stories along the way. For someone who spends a lot of time in an elevator, Kenny knows (or believes he knows) just about everything happening within the building.

Before you get to the elevators, stop by the Capitol Gift Shop on the ground floor to meet Emily. I first met Emily during my week as a high school page for the House of Representatives. At the time, she was working for the House and was fond of my Uncle Gary for whom I was paging (he is the District 88 Representative). These days, I sometimes visit her at the gift shop where she urges me to purchase one of the many Mississippi-themed items available for sale. For Christmas, they’ve got glass ornaments in the shape of mockingbirds.

Our next person of interest is Capitol Curator Brenda Davis, who does yeoman’s work in keeping the statehouse in order. From organizing tours to ensuring stairways are painted in historically-appropriate colors, Brenda always has a project or two up her sleeve. This week, I understand she’s preparing for Friday’s Old Jackson Christmas by Candlelight Tour, which includes a stop at the Mississippi State Capitol. (Dec. 6 in Downtown Jackson – more information by calling 601.576.6800).

A lawyer by training, Secretary of the Senate Liz Welch is the next person of interest on our meet-the-people tour. In her role, Liz is involved in virtually all Senate proceedings; nothing is too large or small for her to handle. Like Brenda, Liz has a passion for preserving and promoting the Capitol. Of course, that makes sense, given her decades of experience in state government and personal connection with the building (her mother served in the House for many years).

The other chamber’s equivalent to Liz is Andrew Ketchings, Clerk of the House of Representatives. A native of Natchez, Andrew and I met many years ago while working as members of Gov. Barbour’s staff. He is a no-nonsense, get things done sort of guy who, by the way, can run faster and longer than anyone reading this column. Drawing on his background as a former legislator, Andrew also keeps the House running, so to speak, which is no easy task.

Highlighting other staff members, legislative committee assistants, budget office workers, and even elected officials themselves would take more space than is given here. But I’ve got the perfect solution: Put on your civic hat and travel to the Capitol to meet everyone yourself.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving thanks for the civic-minded

*First appeared in the Thanksgiving Day edition of the Laurel Chronicle

As we approach this year’s Turkey Day, it seems appropriate to write about thanksgiving – not necessarily the holiday, but rather the mindset. As anyone who works in politics knows, it’s easy to get jaded by this business. Too often I am grouchy about my work: Frustrated by one (or both!) political parties; annoyed by ill-conceived (in my opinion) legislation; and irritated by political antics.

Yet in some deluded, perhaps misguided way, I have no desire to leave political work behind. It’s a great business (notwithstanding the aforementioned frustrations) for many reasons, chief among them is the opportunity to work alongside some really fantastic people who, regardless of political affiliation, care about the welfare of our state and nation.

If you’ve read my columns, you already know the high regard I have for Mississippi’s former chief executive. From Desoto to Decatur, from Gloster to Gulfport, Mississippians saw these skills on display during Governor Barbour’s masterful handling of the many disasters which plagued – almost literally – his two terms (Katrina, BP oil spill, Miss. River flooding, the collapse of the state and national economies, etc.).

I’m thankful to have had an opportunity to work alongside not only the Governor but also my fellow staff members during those years. We truly were a family – sometimes dysfunctional, but always in lockstep on helping our paterfamilias, the Governor, move the state forward.

I’m grateful for the many friendships I have with folks who don’t always share my government philosophy. I’d mention them by name, but for fear of diminishing their Democrat street cred, let me simply say thank you to my across-the-aisle buddies who humor my visions of small government grandeur without telling me where to stick it.

I am increasingly thankful for the young minds that opt to get involved in government. Contrary to popular belief, government isn’t something you care about upon reaching adulthood, whatever that means. As a friend once told me, “most people don’t realize that their [U.S.] government is being run by a bunch of twenty-somethings.” He’s right, mostly. Who else is going to work all hours of the day and night, for no respect and even less money? Twenty-somethings. That’s who. (Disclaimer: A lot of times these staffers doing the grunt work of government have an inflated sense of self, but take it easy on them. They’ve haven’t slept much since taking the job.)

Speaking of our youth (a term to which I continue to cling), I’m excited about the efforts of a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings to bring a little policy talk to networking circles. A group of us are establishing the America’s Future Foundation – Jackson Chapter to provide an opportunity for young professionals to both network and learn about how government impacts our daily lives. We’ll focus on economic issues, and our kick-off event is Dec. 17 in Jackson. The topic? Mississippi’s alcohol laws and how the free market intertwines with your drinking choices, of course. (If you’re interested in learning more, look us up on Facebook.)

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the small landmines of daily living, regardless of your career choice. Clich√© or not, we can all agree that we are ever-so-lucky to live in America, a nation that values freedom, individual responsibility, and an inherent pursuit of happiness. The notion of American exceptionalism has gotten a few bruises lately (I’m looking at you, NSA…), but I’m confident the Red, White, and Blue will keep on keepin’ on, as they say. If not, then we can all blame that one bad Democrat President. (That’s a joke, people. Mostly.)

Now that I’ve given thanks to the many things (and people) I am lucky to work with, for, or even against, let’s eat some turkey. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mississippi STEPS up as national model for ‘governing in prose’

*First appeared in the Nov. 21 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Y’all remember a few years ago when the President and Congress tried to stimulate the nation’s economy through the “stimulus package,” right?

You may recall the stimulus – officially named the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA – totaled some $787 billion in government spending (the total was later revised upward to about $820 billion).

It was costly and controversial. It represented the ultimate manifestation of the Democrats’ government dream: Lots and lots of new (and, to me, quite unnecessary) spending. For example, the Census Bureau, which was prepping for the decennial count in 2010, got an extra billion dollars.

I didn’t support the logic behind the so-called “economic stimulus package,” and I still think it was mostly a waste of lawmakers’ time and taxpayers’ money. With that said, here’s the rub: What Congress dictates as spending policy, states must implement as programs. So that’s what we did here in the Magnolia State.

One part of the massive stimulus bill included funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly referred to as “welfare”) Emergency Contingency Fund to help states either expand existing subsidized employment programs or to create new ones. Mississippi didn’t have an existing subsidized employment program but was eligible to draw down roughly $52 million in no-strings-attached federal funds to be used only for that purpose.

While Republican Gov. Haley Barbour had a philosophical opposition to the stimulus package, he likewise had a strong reputation as a pragmatist. This is an instance where that pragmatism would be on display for the state and nation.

Gov. Barbour chose to utilize these federal dollars as part of the state’s newly-created subsidized employment program dubbed “STEPS” (a short acronym for a lengthy program title: “Subsidized Transitional Employment Programs and Services).

The STEPS program, jointly operated by the Mississippi Departments of Human Services and Employment Security, provided a wage subsidy to employers who hired a specific population of folks (particularly, low-income Mississippians who also had children). The STEPS moniker alluded to a hallmark of the program, which was the “stepping” down of wage subsidies (from 100 percent to 25 percent) over a six-month period.

Unlike some programs in other states, STEPS only provided wage subsidies to new hires in high-growth and sustainable private sector jobs (with the exception of public hospitals, which were also eligible), with a particular emphasis on small businesses.

The main goal of the program was to help both employers hire workers during the economic downturn while facilitating valuable on-the-job training opportunities for workers so they could ultimately land unsubsidized positions. Toward that end, employers who participated in the program had to demonstrate a commitment to retain new hires after the STEPS subsidy ended.

Despite some challenges not mentioned here, the program was, in my opinion, a pretty darn good success story.

But don’t just take my word for it; Mississippi STEPS garnered national attention. The New York Times wrote fondly of the innovative STEPS program, while nonpartisan research groups like the Pew Center examined Mississippi STEPS as a case study. More recently, the Rockefeller Foundation funded a retrospective study of select subsidized employment programs, including Mississippi STEPS.

The study found that despite its relatively short duration, STEPS reached an “impressive scale,” with nearly 1,000 employers and 3,228 individuals participating. About half the subsidized workers were retained after the subsidy period, a much higher percentage than in other study sites. Further, STEPS participants also saw similar employment gains regardless of race – an “important achievement given differences in unemployment rates statewide between Black and White workers.”

Participating employers fell into four main sectors: Manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, hospitality and leisure, and social services. Eighty percent of employers said that subsidized workers were “equally or more skilled than their usual hires” and just as dependable. The year following the STEPS program, participants saw their average annual earnings rise by 34 percent. Among the long-term unemployed, annual earnings increased substantially from $934 the year prior to the STEPS program to $8,040 the year after the program ended.

The STEPS program provided a meaningful opportunity for many Mississippians, especially those with significant barriers to employment, to increase earnings and get one step closer to self-sufficiency. The program wasn’t perfect, of course, and I wouldn’t argue with those who say funding for subsidized employment programs isn’t a proper expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

But Congress gave us lemons, and we made some pretty tasty lemonade-spiked sweet tea. My point in all of this is that there is a difference in philosophical opposition to legislation and responsible governance. The stimulus package passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama. It wasn’t something the Republican Governor of Mississippi supported, but opposition to the law didn’t mean ignoring opportunities to help some of the neediest Mississippians find work experience, either.

And that’s what we did. It’s like they always say – you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The STEPS program was an exercise in prose writing for the Barbour administration.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

From Zamperini to Uncle Gary, veterans deserve support year-round

*First appeared in the Nov. 14 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Last summer, I found myself enraptured by the guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Talking softly but directly, the guest – a gentleman well beyond prime showbiz years – was talking about fighting in the second World War, fending off sharks, and finding Jesus.

Turns out, Louie Zamperini was discussing his biography, “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand. At age 96, this veteran’s life story is more speckled than the fictional journey of Forrest Gump.

Zamperini’s early years as a thieving youth were eventually overshadowed by his ability to run very, very quickly. This speed led him to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he briefly met Adolf Hitler and narrowly avoided a bloody run in with Nazis.

Although Zamperini planned to claim the gold in future Olympic Games, a brewing world war thwarted those plans. Zamperini joined the U.S. Air Corps as a bombardier, participating in a successful raid on Wake Island where he escaped mostly unharmed but his B-24, “the Flying Coffin,” was ruined. Later, Zamperini and the rest of his crewmates would find themselves torn apart, with the majority of them drowning in a fiery crash in the Pacific Ocean. Drifting at sea for 47 days, he survived shark attacks, brutal weather conditions, starvation and dehydration, and even rapid fire from a Japanese Zero fighter jet.

Surviving the ocean was, to me, amazing in itself; but Zamperini’s journey gets worse. He reached shore in Japanese territory, where he was imprisoned and subjected to torture, mental abuse, starvation, and physical slavery for more than two years.

When the Allied Forces finally declared victory, Zamperini and his fellow Prisoners of War were released from their bondage. Zamperini’s return to the United States was anything but easy; he found himself having flashbacks, suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that could, at least in his mind, only be eased by alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.

Fueled by the difficulties of adjusting to a postwar life, Zamperini’s alcohol abuse was driving apart his marriage and life. After months of his wife’s pleas, Zamperini agreed to attend a tent revival led by a young preacher known as Billy Graham. The year was 1949, and that twenty-something preacher man led our hero to Jesus Christ, helping him overcome addiction and repair his marriage.

(Coincidentally, last week was Graham’s 95th birthday.)

This column won’t do justice to the story of Louie Zamperini, but his story demonstrates the extreme dangers faced by our men and women in uniform. It doesn’t matter whether a veteran has had a harrowing wartime experience. What matters is that every soldier fought with the knowledge that Zamperini’s story could have very well been their own –and yet, they didn’t retreat from their resolve to protect our nation. Our soldiers have weighed their options, finding that the perseverance of America and our way of life is more important than individual suffering and death.

That’s powerful stuff.

But the veteran’s heart of service doesn’t end with the tour of duty; indeed, many of them remain involved in servant leadership within their communities. I’m particularly proud of Gary Staples, whom many of you know through his service as State Representative for District 88. Uncle Gary (as I call him) served in the U.S. Navy where he specialized in what I’m calling “communications espionage” (intercepting Russian transmissions).

Although his service was nearly fifty years ago, Uncle Gary believes joining the Navy was one of the best things he’s ever done. Today, Uncle Gary is in his fourth term in the Mississippi Legislature where his communications specialty is no longer at a naval base but rather in the halls of the State’s Capitol.

From Zamperini to Uncle Gary, I’m so grateful these individuals answered the call to protect our great country. We owe them more than a single day of remembrance; we owe them a nation’s worth of debt to be paid by support from communities, businesses, families, and government.

Sadly, we don’t always make good on these debt repayments. This week, CNBC says it has found major issues related to patient care at the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, which has the most whistleblowers of all the VA hospitals across the country. The investigation allegedly uncovered a culture of bureaucracy, questionable ethics, and reckless personnel actions that threatened the lives of veterans.

Healthcare isn’t the only struggle, as many veterans returning from service in the last decade have more trouble finding work compared to their civilian counterparts. Categorized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “Gulf War-era II” veterans, the group’s unemployment rate in October 2013 is a staggering ten percent, significantly higher than the 6.8 percent for nonveterans.

Clearly, we need to improve the services provided to the defenders of America. From healthcare to re-employment, I’m not convinced we’re treating our uniformed personnel with the respect and dignity they deserve. This Veterans Day week, I hope our policymakers and community members will remember that dysfunctional bureaucracies serve the needs of no one, least of all our veterans. Let’s cut the red tape and give these men and women the treatment they have earned.

LAGNIAPPE - Zamperini movie in the works; due Christmas 2014

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Annual business event light on news, heavy on hob-nobbing

*First appeared in the Nov. 7 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.


Last week was the annual HobNob Mississippi event hosted by the state’s chamber of commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council. For those of you who have never attended, the event is appropriately named. Although the day’s agenda is full of political speakers and panels, the real reason anyone goes is to, well, hobnob.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn gave opening remarks, focusing on legislative accomplishments and personal anecdotes. In discussing the upcoming marriage of one of his children, he said his wife wanted to rehab their current home…but he didn’t realize “a wedding required renovation.” Gunn spoke early in the day due to a prior commitment to speak to a group about workforce training – an issue critical to the state’s economic future.

For the 12th annual event, organizers had to use their contingency plan for inclement weather and move festivities from the usual outdoor location at the Mississippi Ag Museum to an indoor location at the Mississippi Coliseum.

Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith seized this opportunity in her remarks, noting the Coliseum is dated and in desperate need of repair and renovation. (During the previous legislative session, Hyde-Smith advocated a $50 million makeover of the Coliseum.)

Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney told hobnobbers his office was involved in more than you’d expect: Bringing in tax revenues to the state’s coffers, fire protection for cities and counties, and stabilizing coastal homeowners insurance rates through the Windpool. Chaney touted the fact his agency is one of just “two agencies that asked the Legislature for less money to run our office.”

Treasurer Lynn Fitch referred to her agency as a “$25 billion transactional bank” and used a good portion of her comments to discuss financial literacy, an issue she’s been pushing at the State Capitol. Fitch believes “financial culture” is one gap in the state’s education system and hopes to change that in the coming years.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves highlighted the legislative successes of the previous two years, such as prudent management of taxpayer dollars, and focused much of time on education reform, one of his top priorities as head of the Mississippi Senate. He said that while others talked about making real changes, like consolidating school districts, the current Legislature and its leadership has actually made good on those promises.

Gov. Bryant was the last elected official to speak, and his comments reflected his focus on economic development. Bryant noted several new companies that have located in Mississippi and concluded his remarks by announcing November as “Mississippi Innovation Month.” (Maybe he read my last column on innovation?)

The Capitol Steps – a comedy troupe – entertained the hobnobbers while they (we) ate generous portions of chicken, barbeque, bread pudding, and even ice cream bars. Kudos to the MEC event planners for knowing how to satisfy a hungry crowd of networkers.

I chuckled as I heard one journalist ask another, “So did anyone make any news today?” They mutually agreed there was nothing newsworthy… which essentially sums up the annual event.

People are there to network, not exactly to hear breaking news. Elected officials give updates on their offices, but most of the time they don’t come with critical announcements. HobNob is an enjoyable event because it provides the business community with an opportunity to mingle with elected officials and politicos in a relaxed setting.

I’d venture to say that’s why MEC has enjoyed many years of hobnobbing success. Sure, you can make educated guesses based on speakers’ comments about their priorities during the next legislative session… but let’s face it. Nothing attracts throngs of movers and shakers like the opportunity to mingle, catch up on all the latest gossip, and eat multiple helpings of Southern food. It’s the hobnobbing way.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Workforce development key component of economic development

*First appeared in the October 31 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

This week I attended a workforce development conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and other statewide partners. The event reminded us that, as MMA president and CEO Jay Moon said, workforce development remains a critical element of successful economic development.

Here are a few more observations from the event.

Panelists at the conference included representation from multiple states and a mix of the public and private sector, and conference attendees represented business and industry; education; and workforce agency stakeholders.

Throughout the day, much discussion centered around “soft” skills. That’s industry speak for things parents used to teach their kids – how to dress for work, how to have a good attitude, punctuality, and motivation to do a good job. Believe it or not, states are spending millions of dollars each year to teach workers these types of skills. Employers are clamoring to find workers who exhibit “conscientiousness” (as one panelist put it). To paraphrase another speaker, employers want a motivated workforce even more than a trained workforce.

As I’ve said before, when the family unit fails our kids, the government tends to step in. Ideally, parents – not training providers – would teach their children these very basic life skills.

Nicole Smith, senior economist at Georgetown University, raised the issue about Mississippi’s “brain drain,” noting our state is a net exporter of college graduates. In essence, we are training young workers to go somewhere else. This is particularly troubling in a state that already suffers from a historically low labor force participation rate (the number of people who are either working or looking for a job). This measure certainly won’t improve if our future workers catch the next train out of town.

Representatives from the construction and defense industries stressed that workforce policy should embrace all career and education pathways – both those which require a four-year degree and those that require a technical degree or certification. The earning potential of non-university careers was explored, with economist Smith noting that a bachelor’s degree in education typically pays much less than a two-year certification in an engineering-related field. (Students: Y’all take that to heart.)

Mike Beatty, president and CEO of the Great Promise Partnership, discussed a Georgia dual enrollment program targeting at-risk youth. The public-private partnership combines traditional classroom education with a job working about 20 hours a week as long the student maintains certain grades and behavior requirements. This program provides real-life work experience – such as those soft skills I mentioned earlier – and demonstrates the value and reward of hard work. It has helped turn the tides for at least 600 Georgia teens since the program’s inception and could be a model for similar Mississippi efforts.

Mark Henry, head of Mississippi’s workforce agency (the Department of Employment Security), is currently serving as president of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. In this role, he is advocating Congress give states maximum flexibility on federal workforce dollars. Amen to that, brother.

Conference attendees broke into small groups, with each group producing a single idea for further study by Mississippi workforce officials. These ideas ran the gamut: Emphasizing the value of work to youth; developing a single workforce development brand for the state; renewing our focus on entrepreneurship; understanding and overcoming the barriers faced by felons re-entering the workforce; unifying the education system; and developing workforce academies and ensuring courses taught by community and junior colleges meet employer needs.

These topics aren’t new, but they continue to be challenges faced by Mississippi as we look to improve our workforce delivery system. I suspect these issues will continue, at least in the foreseeable future, to dominate discussions on how to move Mississippi forward, since successful workforce development breeds successful economic development.

Economic development is, after all, the art of attracting new business and industry to a city, county, state, or region. While competitive tax structures, financial incentives, and other bells and whistles are important, a company won’t locate its next facility in an area without qualified workers.










Thursday, October 24, 2013

Has American innovation peaked?

*First appeared in the Oct. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

A few weeks back, I received an email from the Atlanta Fed outlining several news articles and presentations that interest those of us who nerd out (yes, that’s the technical terminology) on economic trends. I don’t always read these emails, but one sentence caught my eye. At three words, it was a question highlighted in bold that asked, quite simply, “Has innovation peaked?”

I felt a slight panic but a greater curiosity. Has innovation reached its pinnacle? Is 2013 the year in which we just call it quits? Will we never have another Da Vinci? Is Apple the best it gets?

I opted to read further about this thought-provoking topic, which led me to a presentation by Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University’s Departments of Economics and History. The presentation, entitled “Technology Then and Now: Why the Technopessimists are Wrong,” provided some context for the question at hand.

(And, if the title is any indication, innovation isn’t dead. We’re obviously still making up words – “technopessimist” – much like Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Good job, humanity!)

The presentation begins grimly: “A new wave of technopessimism is upon us.” (It should be noted that Mokyr is talking specifically about American innovation in his presentation.) According to Mokyr, we’re seeing this technopessimism play out in three different schools of thoughts. There is one school that believes most of the low-hanging technological fruits have been picked and that future inventions won’t impact humanity in a significant way.

How depressing.

A second school believes that while there are many things we can invent, Americans simply won’t because we are getting “too risk-averse, too complacent, too regulated, and our institutions are turning anti-innovative and sclerotic.” Like ancient Rome; we are, according to this line of thinking, a once-dynamic world now in decline.

Yikes. This is even worse than the first point.

The third school of thought believes that brave new technology will come but at a price. That price is the elimination of our jobs and the marginalization of mankind. Essentially our technological innovation will pave the pathway to fulfilling the prophesized dystopia we read about in high school required reading.

But friends, fear not; for there is hope, according to Mokyr. From a technological point of view, the rate of change will accelerate – not decline – over the next decades due to the increase in “useful knowledge” and something called “artificial revelation” (observations through instruments that allow us to see things that would otherwise be invisible).

In a nutshell, Mokyr subscribes to the belief that science and technology are equally dependent on each other; that is, technology fills the elemental gaps in our understanding of the world. We are not “hard-wired to see microbes, to watch the moons of Jupiter, to store terabytes of information in our brains…tools and machines we build do this for us.”

The main implication, Mokyr contends, is that there is a positive feedback loop between technology and science, and it’s only getting stronger. Which means that science will “expand at ever faster rates” and that technology itself will likely do the same. For Mokyr, it is “hard to see this dynamic system ever settling down on an equilibrium.”

That’s great news, America. But it’s only part of the reason Mokyr thinks the best is yet to come.

Mokyr’s “techno-optimism” is based on the unprecedented access to useful knowledge. The people driving innovation – the inventor, the engineer, the chemist, the physician – need access to best practices and lessons learned about what can and cannot be done. Old school “search engines” included encyclopedias, followed by textbooks with indexes, and then libraries which developed cataloguing systems to make scientific information findable.

Compare these methods to today’s access: By virtue of technological innovations, particularly the World Wide Web, “copying, storing, transmitting, and searching vast amounts of information…is fast, easy, and practically free.” The issue of access is hugely important because, first and foremost, an inventor must be sure he or she is not reinventing the wheel – and thanks to today’s technology, that is an easy question to answer.

Given the rapid development of access to technology and better scientific instruments, it is hard to imagine a world that doesn’t include an ever-accelerating rate of technological progress. Alongside this progress, warns Mokyr, comes “creative destruction” in that what we gain as consumers or citizens, we may actually lose as workers.

The workforce will change, just as it always has. The factory setting is being phased out and replaced by a “work where it suits you” economy. Robotics will be everywhere, including taking jobs previously held by humans, but new technologies will also create demand for workers to perform new tasks created. So not all is lost.

While I’m not in complete agreement with some of Mokyr’s ideas, I do agree with his theory that technology drives science; science drives innovation; and, gosh darnit, the human spirit drives all these things. Innovation has not peaked; it is not to be a relic of the past, and of this I am quite sure.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

4-year degree not required to achieve American dream

*First appeared in the Oct. 17, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

A few years ago, I noticed a banner hanging from a fence at the high school near my house. It read something along the lines of, “University or bust.” Its purpose, I suppose, was to encourage high schoolers to attend college in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

It reminded me of my own high school experience, where the refrain from counselors and other authority figures was essentially the same: A four-year degree is your key to success.

And, well, maybe that is true for some students. But this belief – one that I think is misguided – has been too broadly applied, resulting in parents, teachers, counselors, and eventually students believing that their only chance for success is to attain a four-year degree.

In today’s economy, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I keep thinking about my own experience. While I chose the maybe-not-so-practical path of getting a French and political science bachelor’s degree, my brother decided a four-year university wasn’t in the cards. He got an associates degree from Jones County Junior College and, quite frankly, is the picture of the American dream.

Seriously, you guys – my brother has a fantastic house that’s almost paid for, a lovely wife, a few cats and a Great Dane, and he recently bought his second boat. A facility technician at AT&T (where he’s worked for nine years, though it was still BellSouth when he first began the job), Jonathan receives a competitive wage, full healthcare and pension benefits, and opportunities for regular and double overtime (cha-ching!).

Importantly, he did all this without having the so-called “key” to success (a bachelor’s degree). I will also point out that not only did he skip the four-year college track, he also avoided the excessive student loan debt that often accompanies higher educational pursuits.

So what led him to this role, you ask? For starters, you need to know my brother is the guy you want with you if you’re stranded on a desert island. He can wire anything; he can build anything; he can troubleshoot anything…which is probably why he scored the highest in his grade on that military exam they give you in high school. Jonathan has been able to translate his natural aptitude for doing and building into an electronics career where he troubleshoots and maintains electrical circuits.

That’s what America – and Mississippi – needs more of: People like my brother who recognize their natural skillsets and turn them into meaningful careers.

Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I’ve spoken to countless company reps from across industry sectors – from energy to manufacturing, construction to telecommunications – and they share a common goal: They need more skilled workers, not necessarily those with four-year degrees.

This is particularly relevant with the onset of “onshoring,” or the trend of manufacturers locating plants in the U.S. due to changing dynamics within global markets. Rising labor costs in developing countries, affordable domestic energy, access to low-cost American capital, American productivity, and supply chain complexity has been the recipe leading to the influx of manufacturing jobs stateside.

Some economists estimate that onshoring has created between 250,000 and 500,000 jobs in America over the last three years, and the trend is expected to continue. Major companies like Caterpillar, Ford, and Apple are making heavy investments in U.S. facilities. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt told the Harvard Business Review that outsourcing “is quickly becoming outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.”

Because it’s becoming more economically viable to manufacture in America, our workforce capacity must gear up to supply the needed labor for the new demand. States in the southeast, which typically enjoy lower costs of living, competitive tax environments, and a Right-to-Work policy, are especially attractive to companies looking to bring back jobs to domestic markets.

That means Mississippi is poised to benefit from the manufacturing renaissance, as long as we ensure that we have the skilled labor necessary to do the jobs coming back onshore.

We must change our thinking on education, with a dedicated effort to de-stigmatize workforce training. Not every student needs to go to a four-year university, and that’s okay. Some students have a strong aptitude for technical learning and will thrive in the workforce with a technical degree or certificate.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has previously estimated that in the ten year span leading up to 2014, more than 40 million jobs (roughly three-fourths of total openings) would be filled by workers without bachelor’s degrees.

In Mississippi alone, individuals who lack a bachelor’s degree but have some type of skills training – whether it’s welding, electronics, plumbing, or even healthcare – can get high-paying jobs with good benefits. This is especially true in Southeast Mississippi, which accounts for the most industrial employment in the state with some 58,347 industrial jobs according to Manufacturer News.

We’re at a critical juncture. The global dynamics have shifted and favor a return of job-creating companies to the U.S., particularly the Southeast. But will Mississippi’s workforce culture change with it, or will we continue pushing the misguided idea that all students need a four-year degree to succeed?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Jackson comes to Jones: Lt. Gov, Speaker visit the Free State

*First appeared in the Oct. 10, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

This week, Jones County will be visited by two of the state’s top officials: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn.

By the time you read this column, Reeves will have already spoken to the Jones County Republican Women during their monthly meeting at Western Sizzlin’. Gunn, on the other hand, is scheduled to stop at Laurel’s Train Depot at 8 a.m. this morning as part of his “Mississippi Solutions: An Ideas Tour.”

I first met now-Lt. Gov. Reeves while on the campaign trail in 2003, during which time he and his affable wife Elee spent hours upon hours politicking at festivals, fish-fries, county fairs – you get the idea – to convince voters that Tate (as he introduces himself) was the best choice for treasurer. To stick with the treasurer motif, I’d say they got a pretty darn good return on their investment.

Tate was elected as the first Republican treasurer in the state’s history; just four years later, he would be re-elected with 61 percent of the vote – the highest percentage of any candidate running for statewide office. (In Jones County alone, Tate garnered more than 68%.) Mississippians got to know Tate and his work ethic, and they liked what they saw.

Today this same work ethic has translated into his becoming a legislative force as the state’s Lt. Gov., with successes under his belt including balancing the state’s budget while increasing funding for education; reducing taxpayers’ overall debt burden; implementing education reforms like school district consolidation and the creation of public charter schools; and steering passage of business-friendly tax initiatives like the practical elimination of the state’s inventory tax and the Attorney General “Sunshine Act.”

Last month, the Lt. Gov. announced he would host the Mississippi Education Symposium in Tupelo alongside former U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. William Bennett (you may recall my previous column on Dr. Bennett’s book, “Is College Worth It?”). While many reforms have been adopted, events like this make it clear that Reeves won’t rest on his educational laurels just yet.

Let’s switch to the leader of the other house – the people’s house, as they say – Speaker Philip Gunn (note: only one “L”). I first met Speaker Gunn when I ran around the Capitol trying to push the agenda of the Governor’s Office, and then-Rep. Gunn was nice enough to take my calls. Because he is, as is often said, one of the nicest guys on the Capitol grounds.

First elected to the House of Representatives in 2004, Gunn has the natural disposition of a leader. When Republicans held no leadership positions under Democrat Speaker Billy McCoy's regime, Gunn found himself at the helm of the House Republican Conference, a group which organized the Republicans for the first time in modern history.

Gunn is a devout Christian, and his faith has helped him overcome even those events that are unimaginable to most of us. When he was in college, Gunn’s parents and sister were killed by a drunk driver. But, as columnist Sid Salter once wrote, “rather than embittering him, [Gunn’s] life experiences seem to have forged a man who values family, friends and community.” I have certainly found that to be true.

Gunn has shown bipartisanship in making appointments, giving both Democrats and Republicans coveted chairmanships. Even his “Ideas Tour,” as described in an official press release, reflects this mentality: The Tour is a “non-partisan town hall style series of meetings…a forum for all Legislators, citizens and the press to attend.”

To date, Gunn’s legislative accomplishments include playing a key role in passing a child protection act, a new voter identification law, and passing a conservative budget that doesn’t raise taxes on Mississippians. In his first year as Speaker, the Legislature ended its work early, saving hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars.

Together, the Lt. Gov. and Speaker make a dynamic team, working side by side to pass conservative legislation in the best interests of Mississippians. While each man has his own unique manner of governing, we must not forget that legislative successes are shared between the two chambers. After all, in order to become law, bills must pass both the Senate under the watchful eye of Lt. Gov. Reeves and the House under the steady hand of Speaker Gunn. Jones Countians – and all Mississippians – should be proud of the work these two leaders have accomplished since assuming their leadership positions almost three years ago

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Building the Party: E3 Vanguard works to draw minorities, women to the GOP

*First appeared in the Oct. 3, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle

There's a lot of talk about Republican in-fighting these days. From cable television to lunchtime chatter, I hear complaints (veiled as "observations") near weekly. Politicos question the validity of strategies embraced by certain Republicans. Activists, rightly agitated by the dismal state of affairs in a Democrat-led America, demand flashy demonstrations from politicians lest they be seen as "RINOs" (google that one). All the while, elected members of the Grand Ole Party try to balance on a teetering beam of staying true to Republican ideals and negotiating fair deals to govern effectively.

It isn't always pretty and can be a source of embarrassment for some Republicans. Not this one: I'm a Republican, and quite proud of it. I'm a Republican because I believe we stand for all the right things (no pun intended). There are lots of Republicans. Some I like; some I don't. Some are especially conservative while others gravitate toward the middle. But that's okay, because I think our party wouldn't be so grand if we were a homogenous sort.

Diversity is key to sustaining the Republican Party and, with it, ensuring that conservative ideas are pushed forward in future generations...which means internal disagreements should be pushed aside to focus on evangelizing to those currently outside our reach.

The folks over at E3 Vanguard are doing just that. A group of roughly 100 members, E3 Vanguard was founded last November to focus on, among other issues, growing the Republican Party by strategic outreach to the African American community. Its leadership committee includes president Nic Lott, Rita Wray, Veronica Naylor, and Lee Bush.

Their mission is to educate the electorate, particularly African Americans, by focusing on "individual responsibility, strengthening families, quality education, economic opportunity, civic duty and faith in God." These goals are aligned with the core principles of the Republican Party, which is why E3 considers serving as an outreach arm of the GOP as part of its core function.

"E3 Vanguard welcomes the opportunity to focus on minority outreach at a time when our great nation continues to grow in diversity. We recognize that Americans from all walks of life embrace the very principles and conservative values we uphold,” E3 Vanguard president Nic Lott told the Chronicle.

As Lott alludes, the group isn't solely focused on the black community but desires to expand the base of the GOP by recruiting individuals whose values and beliefs are consistent with the Party. This broader focus includes all persons of color, women, and youth.

To date, E3 Vanguard has made progress, adopting a comprehensive strategy which includes items like development of a program matching minority college students with Republican business and government leaders. I know firsthand how important internships can be in formation of political views and, ultimately, career choices.

About the group’s initial success, Lott remarked that the organization has had “a great first year.” The group’s long term mission, he says, is “informing the electorate, growing the base, and building partnerships in achieving our goals.”

So far, so good. The group’s kick-off event was keynoted by former Governor and Republican partybuilder Haley Barbour. Plans are in the works for a 2013 Fall Forum, "United We Stand," featuring speakers like Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn discussing issues like education, the economy, and healthcare.

E3 Vanguard enjoys a collaborative relationship with the Mississippi GOP and has met several times with Chairman Joe Nosef. While the group is in its early stages, it appears the GOP establishment has embraced E3's mission - an indication that party leaders share the goal of increasing diversity within party ranks.

Being a Republican doesn't mean having a large collection of elephants and a framed picture of Ronald Reagan. There is no requirement that you wear red, nor a mandate to listen to country music (which, by the way, is my least favorite of all the genres). What a Republican does believe, however, is in individual freedom, personal responsibility, free market economic policies, and a society that respects our God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That covers a whole lot of us, doesn't it?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

News delivery: Times, they are a-changin’

*First appeared in the Sept. 26, 2013 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

When I first sat down to pen this column, I admit that I was undecided as to the topic of this week’s piece. Looking to the news for a little inspiration, I began my casual contemplation with a mental overview of the week’s current events, which led to me flipping on the television to watch Sen. Ted Cruz’s filibuster.

Responding to a ping on my iPhone, I noticed a fellow politico had mentioned me in a tweet about the filibuster…so naturally I started scrolling through my Twitter feed (for those of you not on Twitter, your “feed” is basically the home page that shows all the activity of the people you “follow”). According to this social media outlet, there was – er, is? – a lot going on in Mississippi and the nation.

Sen. Cruz was giving an impassioned filibuster speech, which some on Twitter referred to as a “fauxlibuster” due to a procedural technicality. Delta-born Jim Henson, best known for his creation of The Muppets, would have celebrated his 77th birthday. The Book of Manning premiered on ESPN and was, according to my feed, a moving documentary about Mississippi’s First Family of Football. Election results were coming in for the supervisors’ races in Hinds County, and, perhaps more importantly, for the special election held in Hattiesburg to elect a new mayor. (At the time of this writing, absentee votes were still being counted and no new mayor of the Hub City has yet been declared.)

After only a few minutes of perusing my Twitter feed, it hit me: Technology has drastically changed the landscape of news delivery and, along with it, the way candidates and campaigns communicate with constituents.

I love Twitter and consider it my number one news source. In a matter of minutes, I am able to scroll through my feed and instantly get a sense of what’s going on in the global marketplace, the national political scene, and the neighborhood next to mine.

Facebook and Instagram provide similar opportunities, though I often think of these sites as more social-based than news-based. But that’s the beauty of social networks – each user gets to customize his or her experience.

Since “all politics is local,” campaigns and candidates have seized opportunities to connect with constituents at a more localized level. Political groups continue to focus on newspapers, radio, and television, but recognize the changing landscape of news delivery. If you can’t articulate a message in 140 characters or less, then you’re probably out of luck in the political communications realm.

Last night, Sen. Cruz read tweets from people across the nation who were following the filibuster and using the hashtag “MakeDCListen.” The Twitter platform allowed thousands of Americans who were, I assume, previously unconnected join together in opposition to Obamacare by tweeting. The power of social networks cannot be underestimated.

Obama for America (OFA) is often heralded as the first campaign to truly utilize the various social media platforms for mobilizing campaign efforts: volunteers, get-out-the-vote (GOTV), and messaging. Subsequently, there is an increasing awareness of the need to incorporate social media into marketing strategies, regardless of political leanings.

According to a 2013 Pew Center study, nearly 72 percent of online U.S. adults use social networking sites, a huge increase over the same study in 2005 that showed just 8 percent of adults used these sites. A stand-alone question about Twitter found that 18 percent of online adults are now Twitter users, roughly double the amount of online adults who said they used Twitter in 2010.

And if you assume that all social networkers are young people, consider that six out of ten internet users ages 50-64 participate in social networks, as do 43 percent of those older than 65.

(Of course, the young generation has the largest social media presence, at 89 percent of 18-29 year-olds active online.)

Social networking coupled with the emergence of 24-hour cable news channels means that even a small gaffe by a candidate or official can become a huge political liability. In a political environment driven by breaking news on Twitter and shrill cries from talking heads, rationality can often times go out the window.

The rise of social media as a political messaging tool can be a two-edged sword: It can effectively mobilize supporters, but can also lead to overreactions and the cheapening of political honesty.

For what it’s worth, I think social networks like Twitter provide citizens like me with access to information that, in other eras, would have been nearly impossible or simply too time consuming to find. To borrow a quote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, technologies like his site and others have “revolutionized how people spread and consume information. We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television – by simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. They gave more people a voice.”

In this era of boundless information, I can’t help but recall a throwback Dylan tune: “The order is rapidly fadin’, and the first now will later be last, oh the times, they are a-changin’.”





Thursday, September 19, 2013

More money for education should require less money for administration

*First appeared in the September 19, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Legislative budget hearings are nearly complete. By the time you read this column, legislators will have already endured hours of hearings in which agencies ask for more of your tax dollars to pay for things like increased salaries and wireless radios.

Nonetheless, the biggest slice of the state's budgetary pie will go to education, specifically K-12. Within education, the largest line-item is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, known by most as "MAEP." Around the State Capitol, MAEP has become something of a four-letter word (see what I did there?).

When the MAEP was adopted, it was heralded as a magic formula that would, based on district measures like student population and free or reduced lunches, spit out the amount of money needed to "adequately" fund schools. So then, what's the problem?

Some say the formula is bogus and should be revamped. Others note the Legislature rarely funds MAEP at its required amount. Some say we must ensure the accuracy of the data that's being used as part of the calculation, and yet another school of thought insists we keep the formula but recalculate it on a more regular basis.

On the MAEP spectrum, I think I fall into the category labeled "yes."

Yes, let's look at the formula and make changes if necessary. But let's not forget that study of education funding should run simultaneous to study of educational efficiencies. After all, the money we can save through efficiencies is money we can steer back to the classroom.

Recognizing the serious budget pressures faced by school districts, the Legislature has already taken steps to reduce administrative costs. Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, Clay County and West Point school districts were merged to achieve efficiency without reducing educational quality.

Clay County, a K-6 school that had its own school district and superintendent, spent $16,795.38 per student in 2011-2012 - the highest in the state. Its consolidation with West Point along with the other six administrative consolidations implemented by this Legislature will save taxpayers millions of dollars that can be re-directed to the classroom.

Mississippi ranks ninth per capita on administrative costs, which means we must do even more to reduce spending. An aggressive shared services strategy focused on areas like transportation, purchasing, and technology could result in dramatic savings.

A Deloitte study looked more comprehensively at the issue, finding that shifting a quarter of the nation's school district tax dollars spent on non-instructional operations to shared services would save up to $9 billion. That's significantly larger than Mississippi's general fund budget and the equivalent of 900 new schools or more than 150,000 new school teachers.

The report notes a Canadian example where two school boards shared bus transportation across district lines, saving $8 million in three years. New Jersey's Middlesex County municipalities have saved five percent on electricity for public buildings through aggregate natural gas purchases.

In Pennsylvania, two school districts entered into an agreement to share the services of a food service director. After the first year, the program netted a profit of $100,000 compared to the previous year which had a combined $20,000 loss. The combined volume had increased the districts' purchasing power, thus reducing food costs.

I took great interest in the report's note about the California Charter Schools Association, which created a Joint Powers Authority to save members money on mandatory costs, such as worker's compensation insurance. The typical charter school over $20,000 per year on this expenditure.

In addition, the CCSA created "CharterBuy" - a program that taps into charter schools' collective buying power to provide them with the best deals on supplies and equipment. The CharterBuy program has saved as much as 50 percent on expected costs in these areas.

Shared services isn't a new concept and has been embraced across the country by both the private and public sectors. With a top ten listing in administrative costs, Mississippi can't afford to focus on increasing education spending without an equally serious focus on reducing money spent outside the classroom.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Budget hearings give glimpse of priorities, challenges faced by Legislature

*First appeared in the Sept. 12, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

It's almost that time again. You know, the thing that only comes once a year. I'm not talking about Christmas; I'm talking about legislative budget hearings.

Starting Monday of next week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee - known as the JLBC - will meet with select state agencies and commissions to hear about their needs, wants, and everything in-between…as long as it relates to money, of course.

And frankly, what doesn’t cost money these days?

Budget hearings may not sound very exciting. The truth is, they’re not. Agency presentations are focused on current spending, projected expenses, and specific budgetary line-items. Not exactly riveting material. But the staff of the Legislative Budget Office (LBO, pronounced “elbow”); lobbyists; researchers; journalists; and just plain old budget hacks like me lap this stuff up.

Hearings start off with an aggressive schedule: First, as usual, there will be an update from the State Personnel Board's executive director who will give lawmakers a briefing on state government employee trends, including demographic breakdowns and salary information.

Following this presentation, members of the JLBC will hear from multiple agencies, including five of which are headed by statewide elected officials (Depts. of Agriculture and Commerce; Treasury; Secretary of State; Attorney General; and Insurance Commission). In times past, these presentations had the potential to get a little testy, as statewide elected officials are not only agency managers but subject to the whims of Mississippi's electorate.

I expect the usual suspects to garner the most attention during these hearings. Major budgets like the Dept. of Education, Institutions of Higher Learning (the agency representing universities), State Community College Board, and Medicaid typically receive the most scrutiny. Together, these agencies account for roughly 70 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

As with every budget hearing cycle, however, other “budgets du jour” exist. For example, the State Dept. of Transportation has the potential to get tense, given the recent calls for increased gasoline taxes and subsequent calls for increased accountability of MDOT spending. It will be interesting to see how much more taxpayer funding, if any, the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) is asking lawmakers to put into the pension plan. Another budget to watch is the Wireless Communication Commission, which was mandated by the Legislature to develop a long-term funding strategy.

Almost as a prelude to budget hearings, the Washington Post’s “GovBeat” blog this week featured a story on Mississippi’s Department of Revenue collecting a significant amount of back taxes – turning an extra $3.5 million appropriation from the Legislature into $80 million.

“By virtually any standard, a nearly 23-fold return on an investment in a year is really good. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s almost unbelievable. But in Mississippi that’s exactly what legislators got” when they gave DOR an extra $3.5 million to hire auditors and collection agents to target the state’s tax gap.

Of course, the increased revenue is attributable to more than additional manpower, but the new boots on the ground certainly helped those taxes find their way back to the state’s bank account.

Speaking of more money than we thought, I should remind you that Mississippi’s most recently completed fiscal year (Fiscal Year 2013) brought in millions more revenue than legislators expected. The current fiscal year which began in July (Fiscal Year 2014) is exceeding financial expectations, though it’s too early to tell if higher collections will continue.

As I’ve written before, higher-than-expected revenue is both a blessing (more money to spend on priorities) and a curse (more pressure to fund agencies and special interest projects) for state lawmakers.

While it’s unclear how legislative leaders will appropriate these extra dollars, one thing is certain: State agencies, lobbyists, special interest groups, and other capitol players will know just how much extra money there is to be spent, and they won’t take their eyes off the monetary prize (which kind of reminds you of that commercial featuring the eyes on the stack of dollars, right?).

The budget hearings only come once a year and officially mark the beginning of the new budget season. They truly are like Christmas to Mississippi’s budget nerds. Merry Hearings, y’all!

NOTE: For a full schedule of the budget hearings, visit www.lbo.ms.gov.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

America: Is the world’s policeman on furlough?

*First appeared in the September 5, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

Lately, it seems that everyone has become a foreign policy expert. We all have strong opinions on Syria; we pretend to understand the geographic, religious, governmental, ethnic, and other complexities of Middle Eastern turmoil; we attempt to possess a strong handle on military strategy.

I'm just as guilty as the pretenders, as I have chosen to write a column on this very subject. However, rather than take a side, I'd like to look at the larger question that has plagued more than one President: What is America's role in the world?

Does the United States - the world's remaining "superpower" - have a responsibility to serve as the world's policeman? Or, should we temper our military efforts, engaging only in those conflicts which have a direct relationship to our economic, military, or other national interests?

President Obama is on a mission to answer this question - well, sort of. He believes that chemical weapons (sarin, specifically) were used by the Assad-led regime against the Syrian rebels. He has previously said chemical warfare was his "red line" that, once crossed, would guarantee American involvement in the Middle Eastern conflict. Now our Commander-In-Chief says that Congress must give him approval to act before he will direct any military action in Syria.

To be honest, the President hasn’t been especially decisive on the issue. His actions don’t reflect his words. In a joint press conference with the Swedish Prime Minister, the President reiterated his belief that America must act, saying that failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons puts “America and Congress’s credibility on the line.” President Obama said our sincerity was at risk particularly because America gives "lip service" to the notion that international norms - such as the ban of chemical warfare - are important.

Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt agreed that "in the face of such barbarism, the international community cannot be silent" and that despite the hesitance of other countries, the United States has a larger responsibility to the world.

So, Americans are perceived to have a larger responsibility than others to act, according to both our President and the Swedish Prime Minister. But is this perception reality?

The President says we must act; that we have a great responsibility to act...yet he has stalled military action by seeking congressional approval – an unusual precedent set by the chief executive. For an executive to cede power back to Congress in this manner gives the appearance of weakness.

It reminds me of former President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy mantra, "peace through strength." The popular President who was successful in ending the Cold War said this about peacekeeping: "We know that peace is the condition under which mankind was meant to flourish. Yet peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations."

Instead of embracing peace through strength, President Obama has been indecisive, sending mixed messages to our friends and our enemies both at home and abroad.

Further, President Obama drew the Biblical line in the sand at the use of chemical warfare yet, to date, no action has been taken. This has not only portrayed our leader as wavering and our nation as militarily tepid, but has also shown the world that its default global policeman is on furlough under the current administration.

Even our citizens are weary of our inherited role as peacekeeper, with nearly 59 percent opposing Syrian involvement according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll.

Does this indicate a change in attitudes, or is it simply a result of a war-fatigued nation? Will it be permanent, or will America regain its status as international law enforcer in future years?

Only time will tell how the current Syrian crisis plays out and how the United States will deal with this and future conflicts. While our nation may be moving away from its role as the world's policeman, I think it's important for our citizens and our leaders to remember America's unique role in global conflicts.

We are the beacon of hope; the protectorate of what is just and fair; we fight the good fight...or at least that is our global perception. But void of strength and absent a unified vision, we will be unable to maintain the respect, fear, and strategic allegiances that accompany the global policeman.

Remember former President Teddy Roosevelt's big stick policy - that is, "speak softly and carry a big stick." America can only afford to speak softly if we've got the big stick to defend ourselves – and are willing to use it. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this President is willing to take that action.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Miss. has much to be proud of on anniversary of civil rights speech, Hurricane Katrina

*First appeared in the August 29, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle

As I considered the subject matter for this week’s column, a couple of things struck me as particularly relevant. Fifty years ago this week, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of some 200,000 demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I also realized that Mississippi has another anniversary August 29, the date on which Hurricane Katrina wreaked “utter devastation” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast eight years ago. Like so many Mississippians, I remember Katrina - and the mind-numbing aftermath - like it was yesterday.

As my mind wandered, I began to find parallels between the two anniversaries.

In August 1963, our nation was in the midst of a freedom movement to make good on Rev. King's “promissory note,” that proverbial check from the United States to citizens of all races for justice and equality. The speech was especially relevant to Mississippi, which was at that time under the leadership of an outspoken segregationist governor (Gov. Ross Barnett).

As a friend of mine noted, we tend to vaguely recall the “I have a dream” portion of the speech but overlook (or simply don’t know) that in his remarks, Rev. King cited our beloved state - the one with two humpbacks and twice as many crooked letters - as a hotbed of racial injustice...and opportunity.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice,” declared an authoritative Rev. King in his historic remarks.

What Rev. King - the man whose being is synonymous with the civil rights movement - saw in Mississippi was a place where hatred existed, but so did a great opportunity for healing.

Rev. King’s remarks were not “an end, but a beginning” of a sea change in public policy and opinion. His comments, coupled with the courage of others who fought for civil rights in the years prior, changed hearts and minds…though not immediately. A year after the speech, three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) were slain in Neshoba County. Countless others were beaten, threatened, and even killed on their journey for justice. Yet progress prevailed at its slow, steady pace.

A 1963 Mississippi is not reflective of a 2013 Mississippi, a state which will celebrate the groundbreaking of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in late October; a state which welcomed Freedom Riders in 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their equality rides with events across the state and a formal apology from former Gov. Haley Barbour; a state which has the highest number of African-American elected officials in the nation. We are a state shaped by our past, but not defined by it.

And so it is on this eighth anniversary of Katrina that Mississippians of all races have again shown the world we are not defined by circumstances. Hurricane Katrina devastated homes and families; it destroyed infrastructure and fundamentally changed life as we knew it, particularly along our Gulf Coast. It did not, however, weaken the resolve of our people.

This mega-storm – the largest natural disaster in American history – struck Mississippi, a state rife with poverty and a shameful history of racism. Some thought that of all the states, we were the least prepared to handle such a disaster.

But like Rev. King’s speech, Katrina cast a spotlight on Mississippi. And, like fifty years ago, we had a choice: We could live up to their low expectations or seize this opportunity to change the way the world viewed the Hospitality State.

Mississippians banded together and made our choice. Blacks and whites, rich and poor, rural and suburban; none of these things mattered. Neighbors helped neighbors, regardless of race or economic status. Hospitality was extended between families whose antecedents fifty years ago might have refused to share restrooms. Our shared history made us a strong people – strong enough to recover from the devastating impacts of Katrina.

One could argue that our shared struggles uniquely prepared us to deal with Hurricane Katrina, in that we as a state are accustomed to overcoming seemingly impossible odds. The storm that fundamentally changed Mississippi, fundamentally changed the way the world views us…in the same way our progress in race relations has changed the way we view ourselves.

William Faulkner’s often quoted as saying “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Rev. King understood Mississippi as a place of great trouble but of equally great opportunity, and he was right. Today, I couldn’t be prouder that the state I call home has, in the face of great adversity, seized opportunities to create a place where we have come to realize that our destiny is tied up with others; that our freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of others; and that, as the Rev. King said, “we cannot walk alone.”


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bentz replacement should take long-term view of Mississippi energy

*First appeared in the August 22, 2013 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

This week, Southern District Public Service Commissioner Leonard Bentz officially resigned to begin his new role as executive director of the South Mississippi Planning and Development District.

While the PSC will meet again in mid-September, the timetable for replacing Bentz is uncertain. The responsibility to appoint a new commissioner rests solely with Gov. Bryant who has given no indication as to who he’ll appoint or when such an announcement would come.

This “in-between” period breeds a lot of speculation and pontification as to who should be picked; where they should come from; and the like. Naturally, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to give my humble two cents.

While the position pays more than what most Mississippians earn (about $78,000), it also comes with a built-in controversy of sorts: the Mississippi Power coal-gasification plant in Kemper County.

Construction on the plant is nearly complete, but the project hasn’t been without challenges. Internal disagreement within the company coupled with unexpected construction costs resulted in major cost overruns and, frankly, some really bad publicity for Mississippi Power. Now, some fringe opposition groups (including the Sierra Club) are attempting to convince the next commissioner to pull the plug on the whole project.

While “I’m against raising electricity rates” may be a politically expedient talking point, I would caution the next Public Service Commissioner from such a blanket statement. Policymakers – including regulators – better serve the public when they take the long-term view.

Three things we know about Kemper: It’s needed, it’s expensive, and it’s good for Mississippi.

In 2009, the PSC determined that Mississippi Power needed to build a new baseload generation power plant to ensure the company could provide enough electric capacity to serve its customers reliably. In the last 40 years, every time the PSC has found a need for a new baseload power plant, whether by Mississippi Power or Entergy, construction of that plant has resulted in higher rates.

We know we need more power and that it’s going to cost us lots of money in the short-term. Long-term? Capital-intensive projects like power plants typically cause rates to increase, then to level off or decrease. When Entergy built Grand Gulf nuclear reactor, rates increased more than 50 percent; today, this same plant produces the lowest cost baseload electricity in Entergy’s system.

In Kemper’s case, customers are looking at a rate increase of 22 percent – significantly lower than the increase associated with Grand Gulf (a success story) and about two-thirds as much as Mississippi Power had originally projected.

We need the Kemper plant to ensure the lights turn on when you flip the switch, but the next commissioner would be wise to also recognize the often-overlooked benefits of building this new power plant.

First, the plant will use Mississippi lignite coal – a resource abundant in our state. Mississippi Power will pay lignite owners about $400 million for their coal, creating a windfall for Mississippians’ pocketbooks.

The next commissioner should be mindful of the creation of thousands of jobs needed to both build the plant (estimated at 2,000) and permanently run it (estimated at 1,000 if you count both direct and indirect jobs). More than 400 Mississippi companies have a significant role in the construction of the project. Even state and local coffers will reap the benefits in terms of new tax generation, estimated at $30 million annually for the 40 to 60 year life of the plant.

The Kemper County technology includes a carbon-capture and sequestration component, which is beneficial in two ways: First, Mississippi Power will be able to sell the carbon dioxide and other chemicals to the oil and gas industry for approximately $2 billion over the life of the plant. This revenue source will reduce customers’ bills by the same amount.

Second, capturing carbon emissions reduces Kemper’s carbon footprint, meaning this facility will have the same level of emissions as a natural gas-fired power plant. This is truly clean coal, y’all, and it will set the standard in the United States for clean coal electric generation. It will also create a model for China and India to copy this Mississippi technology to greatly reduce rising CO2 emissions in their countries.

Strident opponents say the next commissioner has to make the “difficult decision” to vote against Mississippi Power and for ratepayers, but I disagree. The next commissioner can and should vote to support reliable energy production with stable rates for decades to come.

My (unsolicited) advice to the next commissioner, whoever he or she may be, is simple: Remember to take the long-term view of projects like Kemper. We know that it’s needed; we know that it’s expensive; but we also know that it’s good for Mississippians in the long-term.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pension reforms about math, not politics

*First appeared in the August 15, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

This week, the American Legislative Exchange Council released its new report, “Keeping the Promise: State Solutions for Government Pension Reform.” I’m a bit of a pension nerd, so I combed through the report with great interest.

Pension obligations can wreak havoc on state and local budgets, as we’ve seen with some high-profile examples (Detroit, for instance, which recently filed bankruptcy). The pension crisis cities and states face arose from decades of bad decisions, including not setting aside enough money each year to pay for retirement costs as well as increasing plan benefits without a corresponding increase in plan revenues.

Couple this with the 2008 market crash in which many retirement plans lost 20 percent of their funds…and it’s not hard to see how we got to the point where pension liabilities across the nation total up to $4 trillion. According to ALEC estimates, that’s enough money to cover a $60,000 salary and benefits package for 625,000 to 1.2 million new elementary school teachers for 20 years.

What struck me as especially poignant in the pension study were the following statements: “[The] pension problem need not be a political debate over the size or scope of government; it is a problem of math. The numbers of today’s pension plans do not add up, and observers on the right, on the left, and in the center agree on this point.”

I couldn’t agree more.

A few years ago, Gov. Haley Barbour tasked a group of business leaders, pension experts, lawyers, retirees, and legislators with looking at Mississippi’s state retirement system. The commission reviewed the retirement system with an eye toward ensuring its long-term health and sustainability, making reasonable recommendations to trim costs without jeopardizing retiree benefits.

But to hear Democrats talk about it, you would have thought that mean old Republican governor was trying to take Grandma Suzie’s retirement check and leave her destitute on the street.

Hogwash.

Let’s examine the facts. The state’s retirement system is not on the verge of collapse, but the trends are worrisome. Because the Legislature increased benefits in the late 1990s and early 2000s but failed to pay for these new costs, the plan has become excessively expensive. The system is costing taxpayers close to $900 million this year (that’s more money than it takes to fund Medicaid), and plan actuaries forecast no taxpayer relief in the foreseeable future. The 2008 market crash only compounded the problem, meaning taxpayers are on the hook for skyrocketing pension costs unless changes are made.

That’s not my opinion; that’s just math.

Reining in the costs of a retirement system is one of the most important challenges facing lawmakers today because everyone has a stake in the problem. As the ALEC report notes, “workers and retirees have a stake. People who pay high taxes are affected, as are people who pay nothing at all. The problem touches all Americans…Why? Money that is obligated to pay for pensions cannot be used to reduce tax rates or fund public programs.”

That’s exactly how big-time Democrat and Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo sees it. She campaigned on pension reform, successfully pushed it through the state’s general assembly, and defended it as a moral imperative. When asked by a disgruntled employee about her views, she responded, “[Is] it morally right to do nothing and not provide services to the state’s most vulnerable citizens? Yes, sir, I think this [reform] is moral.”

(As an aside, I heard Treasurer Raimondo speak about pension reform during a Pew Center conference a few years ago. Her determination to put Rhode Island on solid financial footing was impressive, and I expect she’ll be on the political scene for quite some time.)

If we don’t rein in the costs of our own state retirement system, I fear we’ll be left without options. To paraphrase Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we’ll have to pick between pensions and police officers; pensions or paved streets; or pensions and public health. That’s not fair to taxpayers, and it certainly isn’t fair to retirees.

As the ALEC report indicates, fixing the problem of unfunded pension liabilities is a difficult task. Legislators must overcome both technical and political challenges; they must understand arcane financial concepts and respond to statutory law, case law, and even constitutional limits. But ultimately, the question of pensions is not just an “obscure topic of interest to actuaries and accountants. It is, rather, an issue with widespread consequences.”

I certainly hope Mississippians – legislators, retirees, state employees, businessmen and women, soccer moms, and even high school graduates – recognize the benefits and necessity of reining in the costs of the state’s retirement plan. Pension reform isn’t about cutting benefits, but rather ensuring retirees get the benefits they were promised. At the end of the day, keeping our promises means making tweaks to the existing program to ensure retirees, state employees, and taxpayers are treated fairly.

This isn’t about some conservative philosophy, nor is it aligned with Democrat principles. This is about protecting the financial security of our retirees, our taxpayers, and our state.

NOTE: Here is a link to the full ALEC report.