Here and There

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mississippi farmers, beekeepers agree to “bee aware”

*First appeared in the June 25 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When I first heard about the global decline of honeybee populations, I worried. Where are they going? And why? From news articles to documentaries to conversations with others who shared my concerns, it was clear that no one had answers.

Overwhelmed with a sense of abandonment, I decided the hard-working honeybees must have gotten fed up with the human condition, leaving us a la Atlas Shrugged.

For more concrete data, I visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website to investigate “Colony Collapse Disorder,” its history, and any known causes.

In 2006, some beekeepers reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, an unusually high loss ratio. According to the USDA, the main symptom of CCD is “very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present.” Managed honeybee colonies have decreased in number from five million in the 1940s to just 2.5 million today. To date, researchers have not identified a cause of CCD.

Great. So humans aren’t the only ones abandoned, but that seems of little comfort when no one has any idea on how to deal with the revolutionary little creatures.

No one, that is, except Mississippi farmers and beekeepers who are working together to promote honeybee population growth and strong agricultural partnerships through the Honeybee Stewardship Program.

The Miss. Farm Bureau Federation has worked alongside the Miss. Beekeepers Association, Miss. Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Miss. State University Extension Service, and other partners to develop standards to “serve as a basic guideline for cooperative standards that should exist between farmers and beekeepers when bees are located in or near agricultural production areas.”

The issue here is that beekeepers sometimes place their hives in close proximity to farms, putting the bees at risk of coming into contact with pesticides used at these farms. Working together, the beekeepers and producers have adopted several strategies to ensure mutually beneficial agricultural and bee yields.

These strategies include:

“Know your farmer, know your beekeeper”: Farmers and beekeepers are encouraged to develop strong relationships and exchange basic information, like name, phone number, location of hive, commodities grown in the fields adjacent to hive locations, and general information on the type and frequency of insecticides applied on these commodities.

Mississippi “Bee Aware” Flag: This effort has led to the creation of a unified flagging system to clearly mark apiary locations near crop fields. The flag – which is, of course, four stripes of intermittent black and yellow – provides a landmark that is highly visible to farmers operating ground-driven equipment or aerial applicators. The “Bee Aware” flag reminds farmers and others to take great care with insecticide applications so as to eliminate or reduce the risk to the bees.

Other strategies include common-sense ideas, like using GPS to locate beehives and accessing wind direction before applying pesticides.

The USDA says bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value annually, and one out of every three times we take a bite of food benefits directly or indirectly from honeybees. That said, it just makes sense that Mississippi farmers and beekeepers would develop a partnership to help preserve these precious pollinators.

The next time you see a news report about the disappearing insects, remember to thank your local farmers and beekeepers for doing their part to save the buzz!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ingalls shipbuilding a Mississippi marvel

*First appeared in the June 18 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Last week I visited Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. as part of the Leadership Mississippi class. Over the years I’ve done some work with the good folks at Ingalls, particularly in the realm of workforce development. Somehow, though, I had never actually toured the shipbuilding campus.

In three words, it was amazing.

Located on 800 acres, Ingalls Shipbuilding employs more than 11,000 employees, making it the largest manufacturing employer in the state. Nearly thirteen percent, or 1,500 workers, of the workforce are veterans. This year, Ingalls is looking to hire approximately 3,000 to 3,500 more workers, making it the size (population-wise) of a small Mississippi city.

The sheer number of people employed by this company is staggering. How do you keep them on task, working toward the same goal? It seems impossible, but my background in politics may not be the best environment for learning how to work as a team.

Ingalls employees are passionate about what they do – so it helps if you, too, understand what the company does here in Mississippi.

They’re the largest supplier of U.S. Navy surface combatants, having built over 70 percent of Navy fleet of warships. Ingalls is the builder-of-record for 28 of the 62-ship Aegis DDG 51 class of guided missile destroyers, as well as the LHA 6 class large deck amphibious ships and prime builder of the Navy’s newest fleet of the San Antonio class of amphibious assault ships.

Three Ingalls-built LPD ships have been named in remembrance of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: USS New York, Arlington, and Somerset. As we learned last week, the New York ship actually has metal from the Twin Towers melded into it.

There’s no other way to say this: Ingalls makes some pretty awesome ships. Awesomely terrifying, if you’re the enemy.

Maybe that’s why Ingalls employees feel so strongly about the nature of their work. From engineers to communications professionals; from electrical workers to welders, virtually everyone I met at the shipyard seemed genuinely excited to be there. They share a single purpose: To protect the nation’s security and economic interests.

One of our tour guides was head of the electrical team and came from a military family. He was a product of the military, just as his father before him and his son after him and his sister and his sister-in-law and, he hoped, his grandson.

His patriotism was inspiring and translated well into his day-to-day job at Ingalls. Like one of the company representatives noted, “sea power controls trade. If you control the ocean, you control economies around the world.” America having the world’s most advanced naval fleet not only helps secure our nation, but it also strengthens our economy.

That’s when our class began shouting in unison, “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” (Okay, not really. But that would have been cool.)

Our tour guide told us he “didn’t know anything about electricity” when he first began working at Ingalls, but he quickly learned the ropes and eventually worked his way up to the director position. It reminded me of something I’ve said before: More young people need to recognize the value of on-the-job training as well as the importance of the skilled trades, like welding, pipefitting, or electrical work.

You don’t have to get a four-year degree to be successful or to contribute to your state and nation. There are numerous Ingalls workers who have earned community college degrees or other credentials who are protecting America each and everyday.

But back to our tour guide. About this time he pointed out what I believe is the largest crane I have ever seen – nicknamed “Goliath” I soon learned. The size of the machinery needed to build these ships is crazy. For example, Goliath the Crane can lift up to 660 tons. You need to have a lot of training and some wicked confidence to operate that piece of equipment.

Because the campus is so large and accidents do occur, there is a hospital on-site, replete with certified doctors, three fire trucks, and two ambulances. Not only does Ingalls take seriously the safety of our nation, they also take seriously the safety of their workers.

While on our tour, I did notice that male workers overwhelmingly outnumbered female workers, which isn’t terribly surprising. A recent study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that women are underrepresented in the manufacturing sector nationwide, representing only one-fourth of the industry’s workforce. Across all industry sectors, women represent about half – so that’s quite a difference.

“Tougher than steel. Only the best shipbuilders in the world can build the finest ships at sea,” proclaims the Ingalls website in reference to its workers. But I’m not surprised, you see. They are, after all, referring to Mississippians.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

McDaniel's record on PERS at conflict with campaign staff claims

*First published in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

The long-term sustainability of our state retirement system is the greatest fiscal challenge facing Mississippi in the foreseeable future. It’s an issue that really presses my buttons. So when it got used as a political talking point in the U.S. Senate campaign, I felt compelled to respond.

PERS is the acronym for the Public Employees’ State Retirement System, which covers employees of state agencies, cities, counties, community colleges, universities, and school systems, including teachers.

There are a lot of voters – more than 90,000 retirees and 162,000 active members – who depend on PERS, rendering it a so-called “third rail of politics.” Any politician brave enough to even broach the issue of its long-term sustainability may have committed political suicide.

Which makes it all the more rare that an official would address the issue head on, but that’s exactly what Gov. Barbour did by creating a PERS Study Commission in 2011. The need for the commission was brought to a head when the economy fizzled during the Great Recession. The pension plan was already suffering from the irresponsibility of the Mississippi Legislature, which chose to grant retroactive benefits in the 1990s and early 2000s without paying for these massive new costs. Excessive benefit enhancements coupled with the market downturn crippled our system.

Taxpayers contribute more than $900 million annually to PERS, and costs keep on rising. In just ten years, taxpayer contributions have jumped 60 percent, largely because of the plan’s $15 billion in unfunded liabilities.

To put that into perspective: The state of Mississippi currently has about $4 billion in bonded indebtedness. What we owe to PERS in the future is nearly four times that amount! You get the idea. This isn’t sustainable.

Yet last week, Chris McDaniel policy director Keith Plunkett criticized Barbour’s efforts, saying his candidate “stood up against [the PERS study commission].” Plunkett implied that Gov. Barbour’s intention in creating the study commission was to change the cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and other retirees.

In his comments, Plunkett quoted McDaniel from 2011: “Misleading retirees and state employees as a political ploy is inexcusable.”

Amen. Now let’s examine who’s misleading who.

First: The executive order creating the PERS Study Commission specifically defined its purpose, which was to make “recommendations on improving the financial, management, and investment structure of PERS.” At no point did the order even mention “cost-of-living adjustment.”

Will Flatt, a financial expert and member of the study commission, explained on Facebook that “Governor Barbour only gave us direction to study PERS. He gave no specific judgment or pre-conceived guidance” on any issue.

So Plunkett’s story doesn’t add up on the first point.

His second claim was that Chris McDaniel opposed this plan to study the state’s retirement system. Let’s examine.

In 2011, the Miss. Senate passed S.C.R. 678 to “develop and make recommendations on improving the financial, management, and investment structure of the retirement system.” That language sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

A majority of the Senate, including Senator Chris McDaniel, voted in favor of the resolution. It was the right vote to make. The only reason S.C.R. 678 didn’t succeed is because the Democrat-led House of Representatives killed it. Only then did Gov. Barbour establish the study commission via executive order.

Plunkett’s claim that McDaniel opposed Barbour’s study commission is wrong based on verifiable legislative record, which leads me to draw one of two conclusions: Either Plunkett doesn’t know where his candidate stands on the issue (not a good quality for a policy director, mind you), or McDaniel now agrees with the Democrats who wanted to – and did – kill the PERS resolution.

Finally, back to that quote from McDaniel about “misleading retirees.” Remember that in 2011, Democrats were afraid (and rightly so) of losing their hold on the Miss. House, so they latched onto any issue that might give them traction. They used many scare tactics but none so aggressively as PERS. Democrats claimed Republicans were trying to dismantle the retirement system and balance the budget on the backs of retirees. This Democrat argument ultimately rang hollow with voters, who saw past this contrived political smokescreen.

Now it seems the McDaniel campaign is attempting to use those same Democrat tactics to confuse this legitimate issue during the heated Senate primary. It’s a bad political move and terrible policy.

State Senator McDaniel cast the right vote in 2011 to study the PERS system. Back then, he said the system’s exploding unfunded liabilities “could become problematic” in the future if not addressed.

But U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel appears to have sacrificed sound policy for political expediency. Sure, PERS is a political hot potato. I get that. But that’s what elected officials are selected by voters to do – deal with difficult issues. That’s what the Chris McDaniel campaign has promised to do: Never surrender. Never back down. Lead the good fight.

If McDaniel backs down from PERS, will he back down from other serious issues, too? Being a U.S. Senator is no easy task, and it will take someone with strong convictions to get the job done. Mississippi can’t afford politicians who retreat at the first sign of political sensitivity.

National parks a national treasure

*First appeared in the June 4 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

During the Memorial Day weekend, I took a rather unexpected trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. You know the ones over yonder in the western part of the continental United States? The ones where, if you go, you’re certain death will find you in the form of a momma bear protecting her cubs? The one where the scalding water gushes out of the ground on such a regular schedule it’s referred to as “faithful?”

My spontaneous trip can be traced back to standing in a line at Walgreen’s, where I spotted one of those National Geographic magazines with the bright yellow outline. This particular volume had “World’s Greatest Parks” written across it in big, bold letters. Yellowstone was prominently featured in the magazine, heralded as America’s first and one of the world’s finest national parks. I thought it would be fun to visit this park, and so I did.

Mine was a whirlwind visit, but I stayed long enough to appreciate the uniqueness of the Yellowstone and Grand Teton area. The mountains are magnificent. They are not only breathtakingly beautiful, but tended to take my breath away during various hiking ascents. I wasn’t prepared for the vastness of Yellowstone. Even the crisp photos in the NatGeo magazine did not convey the Park’s dynamic landscape which, at one minute, is littered with herds of bison and moose across a rolling green prairie; the next minute, the scene is an icy lake adjacent to a pit of broiling mud.

Yellowstone is a park of wonders. To quote an old explorer who traveled in the area in the late 1800s: “Language is inadequate to convey a just conception of the grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork.”

My visit to this exceptional region made me think a lot about public parks: Is land preservation a core function of government? Is park upkeep a proper expenditure of taxpayer dollars? How do national parks fit into Republican ideals?

In my opinion, there aren’t many “core functions” of government. I won’t tell you in this column that land preservation is a core function of your government.

However, I do believe that land preservation is important and a worthwhile endeavor. I am pleased we have the national park system, just as I am pleased we have state parks here in Mississippi. There are countless reasons I support public parks – promotion of natural resources, cultural and educational experiences, ecotourism, preservation of lands for future generations – but I also believe public parks should exist as a partnership between private and public funding sources.

In 1967, Congress chartered the National Park Foundation, which helps steer private support (be it land, natural resources, or monetary) to the national park system. According to their 2013 annual report, the Foundation raised $23 million for the nation’s park system. That’s a step in the right direction, but the ratio of private support should be much higher considering the amount of taxpayer funding appropriated to the National Park Service by Congress (more than $2 billion in federal fiscal year 2014).

Despite the work left to do to increase private sector support of our parks, I admit that I don’t mind my taxes being used to pay for park upkeep – as long as the money is spent effectively and with much accountability.

But how do national parks fit into Republican ideals? Great question, and one I’ve been pondering since last week.

As a child of the Piney Woods region, I always enjoyed exploring the woods with my brother; as an adult, I still love exploration of woods and especially waters (kayaking and canoeing). I hope that future children of Mississippi have access to the same clean rivers and densely forested areas that I did, but that requires a good deal of responsibility.

The Republican Party is nothing if not an entity for promoting personal responsibility. As a conservative Republican, I agree with our GOP platform that proclaims a fundamental belief in “individual freedom” and “personal responsibility,” as well as “the responsible management of our natural resources and incentives for private conservation.”

Individual choice will always be a better driver of personal responsibility than government mandates, though I recognize that the incentive to act responsibly – such as a high dollar fine for littering – can help spur proper conservation efforts.

I often think the kind of people targeted by those types of laws – you know the people who throw trash out of their car with no regard for its impact on our environment – are not bound by one political party. They tend to be the people who treat others poorly, who aren’t bound by commitments, and who weren’t taught responsibility in the home. But I digress.

This Republican believes her views of public parks square nicely with the tenets of the GOP. I’m proud of our national parks and have no problem with my taxes being used to pay for their preservation and upkeep – so long as my money is coupled with private sector dollars and high degree of accountability.

The national parks truly are a national treasure – and I’d like to see us keep them that way for generations to come.