Here and There

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. Cliché 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.