Here and There

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Government gets in a tangle

*First appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Think the Republican Party mantra of “smaller government” is empty rhetoric? I’ll bet you’ll reconsider that skepticism after watching “Locked Out: A Mississippi Success Story,” the twenty-six minute documentary on hair braiding regulations in Mississippi.

You read that right. “Hair braiding.” Granted, this isn’t the first profession that comes to mind when conservatives bemoan the onerous nature of government overreach. Yet its unique story best exemplifies the impact a government regulation can wreak on a business, an entrepreneurial spirit, a community, and a culture.

More than ten years ago, Melony Armstrong of Tupelo decided she wanted to earn an honest living by hair braiding, a skill she’d learn from an expert in Atlanta. According to her husband, Pastor Kevin Armstrong, Melony had this epiphany after having her own hair braided. “I thought to myself, her hair is that tight she must have lost her mind,” Pastor Armstrong recalled in the documentary.

For about six months, Melony practiced her profession on mannequins inside the couple’s home (much to the annoyance of her husband). When she felt confident enough to braid hair professionally, Melony took the next step by seeking a license through the Mississippi Board of Cosmetology.

And that’s where the story gets interesting. The Board refused to license Melony, telling her that she needed to attend a board-approved school for at least 18 months (which cost about $10,000, by the way) before she could legally open her business.

“The law discouraged me,” Melony remembered, particularly in a state like Mississippi where, at that time, you could become a tattoo artist, firefighter, police officer, and a hunting instructor “in less time than it would have taken…to get a cosmetology license.”

Aghast at this cost-prohibitive requirement, Melony sought other options. Ultimately, Melony’s passion took her from a salon in Tupelo to the Mississippi State Capitol, where she was able to garner legislative support to reform the restrictive laws.

According to the documentary, the reforms worked: Immediately after the law went into effect, more than 300 people received their licenses to professionally braid hair, and over 45 salons opened across the state. In 2005, Melony Armstrong opened “Naturally Speaking,” the first licensed salon of its kind, at a licensing cost of about $25 dollars.

The impact of the law change on Mississippians isn’t rhetoric; it’s real. The law “opened up a new hope for me that maybe someday I can [open a salon],” said one woman interviewed. Another woman observed the law change gave her “a reason to want to be a business owner…it was not a dream anymore. I could actually step out and do it.”

Melony’s story is compelling because it’s easily understood. She had a dream that was essentially unachievable because of senseless government regulations. Because of her efforts, the laws were reformed in favor of business. Notably, deregulating the industry had broad-based support. Even Democrats agreed.

Democrat Representative Steve Holland is featured in the documentary, explaining that he “just didn’t sense where the government should intrude…in something as culturally-based” as hair braiding. Democrat Senator Hillman Frazier said he wanted to make sure hair braiders had a “free market system and that people would be able to make their trade based on the economy.”

Unfortunately, Melony’s success is the exception, not the rule. Hers is a local perspective on a national problem. As a June Forbes article succinctly notes, “wrestling down federal spending and taxation won’t suffice anymore. Regulations are equally as punitive.”

The column references a Competitive Enterprise Institute study which calculated the cost of federal regulations to be about $1.86 trillion annually – more than half the size of the President’s recent $3.9 trillion budget proposal. If U.S. federal regs were a country, it’d be the tenth largest (between Italy and India). Localizing these numbers means the typical family pays about $15,000 per year on regulations, or nearly one-quarter of household income.

That’s outrageous.

Onerous government regulations harm business. They choke innovation and break entrepreneurial spirits. When Republicans champion fewer government regulations, Democrats shriek about Big Business and Crony Capitalism. What they don’t mention is the local impact of burdensome regulations – like requiring 18 months of classes and $10,000 in costs before obtaining a cosmetology license.

No one thinks that’s a good idea – not even Democrats.

BONUS - Here's the documentary referenced in the column.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mississippi migration (and we’re not talking butterflies)

*First appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

As a region, the South is enjoying faster growth than any other, and politicos are taking note. The increased population growth means more electoral prowess, and whichever party controls this region will have a significant political advantage.

Although the South is typically seen as a safe-haven for Republicans, population growth among these states means more demographic diversity. With more people comes more viewpoints, and that (probably) means the southern color palette will feature various shades of purple. That alone will be interesting to watch.

Smart strategists pay attention to these migration patterns, and politicos don’t have a monopoly on this data market. The relocating of people from one state to another is big business – and big bucks – in the economic development realm.

Mississippi policymakers, here’s some information worth a noodle.

A century ago, 86 percent of Mississippians were born in Mississippi, according to information compiled by The New York Times. In 2012, less than three-fourths – or 72 percent – of residents were born in-state.

“About 60 percent of Mississippi’s domestic population growth since 1980 has been driven by migration from other states, and the share of state residents born in the state has never been lower,” according to The Times.

I’ll rephrase: Never in our state’s history have we seen a larger share of residents who were born outside our borders.

Depending on your perspective, this can be something of a wake-up call. It’s positive that Mississippi’s slow-as-molasses native population growth has been offset, at least to a certain extent, by domestic migration. That’s mighty nice of you folks who have relocated to the Hospitality State.

That being a Mississippian may become less about birthplace and more about residency can be another positive for our little slice of southern heaven. As the Hospitality State, we’ve got a duty – nay, a cultural obligation! – to welcome others into our ranks. We must be practical on issues like immigration, recognizing the economic, cultural, and social impact of those who help sustain the rural nature of Mississippi’s economy. We must likewise recognize that our state economy could use an infusion of top-tier talent – such as college students who wish to study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - regardless of where they were born.

Yet even these beliefs won’t be enough to sustain future growth. Migration, whether foreign or domestic, isn’t the sole economic savior we sometimes hear about on television. In fact, we don’t even need to look outside our state to spur an economic revival. But it’ll require that Mississippi do a better job retaining homegrown talent.

For years, we’ve heard about “brain drain,” but only in recent years have I begun to appreciate what this means for the future of our state. Mississippi is a net exporter of college graduates, which means our state’s best and brightest minds tend to leave – or at least, don’t enter the workforce – over time.

The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission characterizes this phenomenon as having a “detrimental effect on Mississippi’s economic development and quality of life,” citing the fact that college grads tend to have children who also graduate college; are less likely to use public sector services; and generate more tax revenues over a more sustained period of time.

In other words, these are the people we should be encouraging, pleading, begging (choose your word) to stay in Mississippi. These are the folks who can contribute to an economic renaissance, yet too many are leaving our borders for surrounding states. The grass is greener, they say.

The political rub, as I see it, is this: The state has made an investment in the education of these Mississippians, and, like a business, we ought to maximize our return-on-investment (ROI). The question is: How do we do that?

Honestly, I’m not sure. My experience with college-age kids is they aren’t enamored by lofty public sector-driven initiatives, nor do they seem to care what some wonk in Jackson thinks about their lifetime goals. “Working and raising a family in Mississippi” is an antiquated notion when you’re 18 and looking to explore the world.

We’ve got to reach them on their own turf, and that starts with a cultural shift in our own thinking. Mississippi isn’t the place it was 50 years ago, and we’re slowly beginning to take pride in ourselves. We are now getting second looks from companies looking for low taxes and skilled workers. We’re getting serious about education reforms, which means a more desirable environment in which to raise a family.

Those of us who have chosen to live and work here have a responsibility to seek out younger minds and encourage them to do the same. It’s like any political campaign in that someone you know and trust is more likely to sway your opinion than someone you see on television.

So let’s focus on our college graduates and send a unified message that Mississippi is a great place to return after they’ve explored the world. And heck, maybe we’ll eventually have to modify that bumper sticker I see everywhere: “American by birth. Mississippian by choice.”

Your worldview in 140 characters or less

*First appeared in the Aug. 13 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

You’re looking for news, any news. Who wrecked their car while texting and driving? What country just banned Justin Bieber from performing? What’s the latest craze in the cat video world? What elected leader had a major gaffe on live television?

If you’re like me, you’re part of the estimated 19 percent of online adults who find the answers to all these questions – and much, much more – on the social media site known as Twitter.

Twitter 101 consists of five parts: First, your name on the network is called a “handle” and is always preceded by the “at” sign. For instance, President Obama’s twitter handle is @BarackObama. Second, the people who subscribe to your account on Twitter are called your “followers.” In this case, @BarackObama has 44.9 million followers.

Third, the messages you send to your followers are called “tweets.” (Related: Your messages can be “retweeted,” which is sort of like forwarding an email you received without changing any text.) Fourth, and most importantly, your tweets cannot be longer than 140 characters. This can be challenging for the verbose among us. In literary terms, Twitter’s a playground for Hemingway but a curse for Faulkner.

The fifth and final part of this Twitter lesson is the hashtag, which I previously called the number sign. Typically, hashtags are used to note the subject matter of the tweet. Here’s what it looks like: “I’m explaining social media. #TwitterLesson”

Twitter serves as sort of a clearinghouse of information: You can get a lot of real-time information in not a lot of words and decide instantly which stories to further investigate. It’s a system that feeds my generational need for instant gratification and one that I suspect will have devastating impacts on the future. Alas.

Twitter is not only useful for news, but it’s also highly entertaining. Politicos, journalists, elected officials, and others use it to share their platforms, report on legislation, “live-tweet” (tweet about something in real-time) events, and, on occasion, argue amongst themselves.

If you’re not on Twitter, here’s a snapshot of what you’re missing.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) tweeted a picture of his visit to the set of The Hollars, the Miss.-based movie directed by John Krasinski of The Office fame.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (@TateReeves) had a little fun with his account during the Neshoba County Fair by using the hashtag “#TaterTots” in reference to his supporters.

In late March, House Speaker Philip Gunn (@PhilipGunnMS) showed Jones County a little love by tweeting a picture with a basketball signed by the Jones County Junior College men’s basketball team, which won the national championship. (#GoBobcats)

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Public Service Commissioner and rumored statewide candidate Brandon Presley (@BrandonPresley) invited his followers to a community center gathering to hear him sing country music. He’s really got this populism thing down to a science.

Jones County native and head of the Mississippi Democratic Party Rickey Cole (@RickeyCole) tweeted his observation that “the nasty little habit of petulance masquerading as ambition sooner or later leads to irrelevance.” Twitter’s as fine a place as any to be mysterious and philosophical, I should add.

Journalists thrive on Twitter, too. Sam Hall with the Clarion Ledger uses it to post links to his stories, to defend those stories,* and to engage in general commentary.

*The New York Times declared last week (via Twitter, of course) that no one wins a Twitter fight.

Sam (@SamRHall) recently posted a picture of a nasty Facebook message he had gotten from someone about his coverage of the Miss. Senate (#mssen) race. In understated sarcasm, Sam called it a “delightful message from a reader.”

Political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (@MarshallRamsey) is more than amusing. He tweets about politics, weather, running, and other things, like the first day of school. From his Twitter account: “Planning for D-Day, also known as the First Day of School. Praying going on. Plus some swearing. And vomiting. Ramp about to drop.”

The network is a mashup of politics, news, jokes, snippy comments, and virtually anything else you want it to be. After all, no two Twitter accounts are the same. You control which news sources to follow; you control which accounts to read. In other words, you narrow your focus to the people and organizations you want to follow, not necessarily those you need to follow.

In the end, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it appears to be the wave of the future – for now. So, now that you’ve gotten a better handle on Twitter, why not take the next step and get an actual “handle”?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Neshoba County Fair (Political) Walk-Up Songs

*First appeared in the August 6 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

By now, the highlights of politickin’ at last week’s Neshoba County Fair have been written about, tweeted, Facebook(ed), or otherwise referenced by various media outlets. Undoubtedly you already know the gist of what was said – or, by the same token, what wasn’t – at Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty, and I’ve no interest in rehashing it.

Instead, I’d like to discuss the Fair in the context of baseball. Walk-up songs, to be exact. You see, I made a joke to fellow fair-goers last week that it would be funny if politicians, like baseball players, got to choose individualized music that would play as they walked onstage. This week, I’ve decided to choose that music for them.

I consulted a (self-proclaimed) walk-up song expert and learned the rules of choosing a song. According to him, it doesn’t have to be a good song, but it does have to be a song that’s relatively catchy in a brief amount of time – the time during which you “walk up” to the plate or, in this case, the microphone. Thus, songs were chosen in this manner and do not necessarily reflect my taste in music, although it has often been questioned by those close to me.

Walk-up song number one: I’m Going Home by Daughtry.

One of the major announcements made at the Fair came from my friend Senator Giles Ward, who told the crowd he would not be seeking re-election in 2015. I’ll miss Senator Ward, who is not only a strong conservative but also a heckuva nice guy. He told the crowd he’s looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, and, to borrow lyrics from the song, “I’m going home, back to the place where I belong, and where your love has always been enough for me.”

Lt. Governor Tate Reeves spoke on issues like balancing the state budget, reducing wasteful spending, and reforming education, saying his bold stances have saved taxpayer dollars but haven’t always made him popular in the halls of the Capitol. In other words, he told the crowd he has risen up to the challenge of his rivals, which also happens to be lyrics from our second walk-up song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

I chuckled when listening to House Speaker Philip Gunn’s speech about Republican Party unity, the ups and downs of which he cleverly compared to a marriage. That’s why walk-up song number three is “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Everyone can see we’re together, Gunn told us (more or less), and conservatives fly just like birds of a feather. “High hopes we have for our future, and our goal is in sight,” he told us – that goal being implementing conservative policies in the Mississippi Legislature.

Takin’ care of business was the theme of State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s speech, and that’s why his walk-up song is Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s classic by the same name. Tax cheats and embezzlers, y’all better watch out for this guy. He’s taking care of business and working overtime.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch announced a new financial literacy initiative and said Mississippians needed to save more money to become financially stable. I interpreted her comments as encouraging the state’s citizenry to be fiscally responsible and pay our “Bills, Bills, Bills,” like the women of Destiny’s Child did in their mega-hit. That’s walk-up song number five.

Secretary of State Delbert (a.k.a. Englebert) Hosemann touted the success of the state’s voter ID law, a topic that naturally lends itself to The Who’s “Who Are You?” as walk-up song number six. Poll workers, sing it with me: “Who are you? Who, who, who, who? I really want to know.”

As the lone statewide-elected Democrat, Attorney General Jim Hood can really only have one walk-up song: “One is the Loneliest Number” by Three Dog Night.

Because I like puns, I’m assigning “Highway to the Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins as Highway Commissioner Dick Hall’s walk-up song for no reason other than both have the word “highway” in their title. (Also, I have a thing for cheesy music.)

Former Gov. William Winter (who is 91 years old, by the way) spoke at Neshoba. It was his 26th time to address the crowd, but his age was not a factor as he delivered a speech worthy of the elder statesman. He spoke about Mississippi’s history and its continual evolution. As Gov. Winter noted, “Times They Are A-Changin’,” and that’s why Bob Dylan is the man behind his walk-up song.

Promising to fight for Mississippi “because she’s worth fighting for,” U.S. Senator Thad Cochran deserves a walk-up song no less inspiring than Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” His speech was energetic and convinced me that yes, he will keep on fighting ‘til the end for our great state.

Finally, Gov. Bryant’s speech touched on many topics, including an anecdote about his conversation with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on the recent border crisis. Gov. Bryant offered assistance to Gov. Perry, but the Texas executive declined. But what if he hadn’t turned us down, I thought? “Send lawyers, guns, and money” could have been his response, and that’s why Gov. Bryant’s walk-up song is that catchy tune by Warren Zevon. (Okay, it’s not a perfect fit, but a great song nonetheless.)

This concludes my list of Neshoba County Fair walk-up songs. Here’s hoping fair organizers will read this column and consider adding a music feature to the political speaking. After all, every houseparty needs a little rock and roll.

Monday, August 4, 2014

In hyper-partisan world, workforce development topic of consensus

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle on July 30, 2014

In May, a bipartisan (and bicameral) group of lawmakers announced they had reached an agreement to improve the nation’s workforce development system. The deal purported to update the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 by “moderniz[ing] and improve[ing] existing federal workforce development programs, help[ing] workers attain skills for 21st century jobs, and foster[ing] the modern workforce that evolving American businesses rely on to compete.”

Two months after congressional negotiators announced the agreement, President Obama signed the new legislation (officially the “Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act”) into law.

This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, except few things get passed quickly – or rather, at all – in today’s hyper-partisan environment. (This is not always a bad thing. An ineffective Congress poses fewer threats to my way of life.)

Passage of this legislation didn’t create a lot of fanfare. I guess that’s due to the bipartisan nature of the bill. No sexy headlines, no real political buzz, no fodder for campaign fundraising emails. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why few issues are bipartisan in nature…

But back to the story. Is workforce development a bipartisan issue? Over the past few years, I’ve developed a strong belief that workforce development is a topic that can, if given the chance, create consensus even in politically toxic environments. The passage and signing of the WIOA reinforces this belief.

I also considered the history of the original workforce act. It was passed in 1998 by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democrat President (our neighbor from Arkansas, Mr. Clinton).

In 2009, the President championed and Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which wasted a lot of money on a lot of stagnant programs. But its workforce training component (authorized temporarily) allowed a Mississippi governor to create a subsidized employment program that was not only successful, but also heralded as one of the most innovative in the nation.

Even at the state Capitol, support for workforce training is universally accepted as smart public policy. Whether it’s increasing technical funding at community colleges or authorizing legislation for training programs, legislators are like-minded when it relates to helping Mississippians learn new skills. They see this as an avenue to help individuals earn higher wages, increasing their individual success and in turn that of their children. (The idea in summation: A rising tide lifts all boats.)

Over the years I’ve had several versions of this conversation with a colleague of mine, and he tends to agree – which is saying a lot, since we don’t often find consensus on matters of public policy. Bless his heart.

Workforce development issues can provide an opportunity for lawmakers to work alongside each other, build trust, and do something half decent in the process. Who knows? Maybe this camaraderie will spill over into other issues, like reforming the tax code or our immigration laws.