Here and There

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Hospitality State celebrates the hospitality industry

First appeared in the May 28 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

I’m not sure if it’s the recent “Parts Unknown” episode in which Anthony Bourdain samples southern staples on national television or the fact I spent a good deal of time talking about chicken in this space last week. For whatever reason, my brain – and, hence, this column – remains focused on Mississippi cuisine.

Mississippi’s culinary heritage will continue to be on display when the state’s Hospitality and Restaurant Association celebrates its 60th anniversary later next month. Their party will be a “Summer of Seafood Extravaganza” held at the Old Capitol Inn in Jackson on June 23. If you’re interested in enjoying any number of innovative seafood dishes – from shrimp to crab, oysters to various finfish – be sure to visit www.msra.org.

The Association was originally formed in the mid-50s as a forum for Jackson restaurant owners to discuss business issues they faced, but the group quickly expanded to include members from across the state. Today, the MHRA has grown into one of the largest membership organizations in Mississippi, including local members like Bop’s, West Quality Foods (mmm…chicken), and Sweet Pepper’s Deli.

The organization provides a variety of services to its members: Supervisory skills training, financials evaluations, credit card processing and music licensing guidance, and even health and workers compensation insurance. The organization says its “core of endorsed services is sure to bring more money to [restaurants’]” bottom lines.

Over the years, the MHRA has seen its scope of work expand. Smart employers recognize the value of working in partnership with local educational entities, and the restaurant industry is no different. MHRA has sponsored “ProStart,” a two-year high school curriculum that teaches high school students the fundamentals of restaurant management and culinary skills. To date, over 40 high schools are participating with more than 1,200 students enrolled in the program.

I’m a big fan of workforce training in any sector (and at any work-appropriate age), so this is a good move by the MHRA. Teaching high school students the mechanics of this industry not only equips them for the workforce immediately upon graduation, it also leads to improved restaurant quality.

As an added benefit to its members, the MHRA plays an active role to ensure restaurants aren’t forgotten when the Legislature rolls into town. “We have been much more active and successful in the legislative arena and have stepped up our election contributions to key candidates,” says executive director Mike Cashion.

The government affairs arm of the MHRA works to protect restaurants “from harmful legislation while promoting legislation that will benefit the industry,” according to their website. Over the past two legislative sessions, the MHRA estimates its key issues have had a positive economic impact of $17,000 per restaurant location in the state.

When you’re a small business owner living off pretty thin margins, $17,000 can be a boost to your entire operation.
No surprise here, but I’d point out their legislative successes wouldn’t be possible without the strong leadership of Republicans fighting efforts to raise your taxes (such as an increased excise tax on sugared beverages that some Democrats keep pushing).

Food is such a large part of the Mississippi experience, so it’s not surprising the trade association devoted to it touches so many aspects of daily life: Making mealtimes possible (who always has time to cook? Not this girl.); working with the Legislature on bills important to small business owners; investing in the local community; partnering with high schools on workforce training; and so on.

The restaurant industry in particular will always hold a special place in my heart. After all, restaurants have been the sites of many a first date during my teenage years (and beyond). But more importantly, my very first job was at the Laurel McAlister’s – a job that taught me the value of a dollar and the importance of service with a smile. I often tell people it’s the only other job I had prior to working in the Governor’s Office, so it must have been pretty good job training.

Cheers to all the Mississippi restaurants out there, and congrats on your 60th anniversary as an association.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Poultry no paltry industry to county, state

*First appeared in the May 21 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

The recent tornadoes that rampaged through Mississippi – from Tupelo to Louisville and even on down to Laurel – not only destroyed homes, but they also hit the state’s top income generating agricultural commodity – those feathery birds we call chickens – pretty dang hard.

According to published reports, the storms claimed more than 1 million birds statewide. The Mississippi Poultry Association says 18 poultry farms and 78 chicken houses were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Now to why you should care. First and foremost, chicken is delicious. There’s fried chicken, grilled chicken, blackened chicken, even General Tso’s chicken; chicken is the can’t-do-without-it ingredient to dishes like tetrazzini and spaghetti (a personal favorite). I’m a proponent of chicken stability for reasons mostly cooked up in the kitchen.

You should also care because it’s likely that you, someone you know, or someone you’re kin to works in the chicken business.

More than 55,000 jobs in Mississippi are attributable to the poultry industry (28,000 direct and 27,000 indirect).

In Jones County, there are at least three poultry processing plants: Southern Hens, Wayne Farms, and Sanderson Farms. Wayne Farms and Sanderson Farms are two of the top five poultry processors in the country and are among the top employers in the county, according to the county’s website. The presence of these processors “encourages entrepreneurship within the region. Individual poultry growers throughout South Mississippi have a vital livelihood thanks to these…operations.”

Mississippi is even home to Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest egg processor in the world.

Poultry is a large component of Mississippi’s agricultural economy. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture Data, Mississippi has 38,076 farms with 10.9 million acres of farmland statewide. Statewide, Mississippi has about 2,000 poultry farms that produce more than 750 million birds per year that go to stomachs like yours and mine via grocery stores, restaurants, and the old-fashioned grill.

In Jones County, there are 927 farms with more than 125,970 acres of dedicated farmland. The average farm size is 136 acres. In the Free State, farms with any chickens numbered 189 in 2012, a slight decrease from 197 when last measured in 2007. The number of farms with broilers was up from 117 in 2007 to 141 in 2012. (A broiler is a chicken aged 28 to 65 days raised for meat.)

According to researched conducted by Miss. State University, the poultry industry is the largest income-producing agricultural commodity in Mississippi. The majority of the industry’s income is generated by broilers, with commercial egg production making up most of the remainder.

Speaking of broilers, I forgot to mention “broiled chicken” in my earlier list of all the delectable ways you can eat this bird. But I digress.

The chicken economy doesn’t stop in the Magnolia State. These tasty birds also boost Mississippi’s export market, particularly as most poultry is shipped out of ports in the South. Mexico has replaced Russia as the largest purchaser of U.S. poultry, with more than 967 million pounds shipped in 2010. That’s a lot of chicken nuggets, y’all.

Mississippi birds (let’s call them “hospitality chicks”) get exported around the world and play a role in meeting the global demand for protein. The United Nations estimates the world will need two-thirds more protein by 2050 due to increasing populations and incomes; fortunately, Mississippi is poised to “meat” this need through a steady supply of our tasty feathered friends.

There are lots of reasons to support your local chicken folks: For culinary reasons, for jobs, for economic impact, for meeting a global food need. Whatever the reason, I hope you’ll grab an extra chicken breast or two the next time you’re at the grocery store.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When primary battle ends, actual policy war begins

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper on May 14

The Republican primary battle between incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran and state senator Chris McDaniel will end when voters go to the polls on June 3. I suspect those who set out to cast a ballot will do so with phrases like “trial lawyer” and “establishment Republican” seared on their brain.

However the chips may fall on June 3, Republicans ought to keep another phrase in mind – “liberal Democrat agenda” – when the general election rolls around in November.

During this primary process, we (Republicans) have channeled a lot of energy into defining each candidate – and, perhaps, rightly so. It’s the nature of elections, particularly primary battles in which campaigns live and die by the nuance. This primary battle, like so many before it, adheres to the rules of Thunderdome: Two men enter; one man leaves.

And so it will be on June 3. Senator Cochran may maintain his seat or lose it to challenger Chris McDaniel. Either way, the real threat to conservatism in America is – and always has been – the liberal agenda being pushed by our President and his Democrat colleagues.

He campaigned on the promise of change and ooh boy did he mean it. We’ve seen America change all right. Let’s look at some of the changes to the tax code in 2013: Payroll taxes increased on all workers regardless of income (so much for that promise of middle class tax relief); top marginal tax rates increased; certain personal exemptions and itemized deductions were phased out; investment taxes went up; the death tax rate increased; and even business investment taxes went up.

Obamacare – the largest tax increase in my lifetime – called for a slew of tax hikes, including yet another increase in investment taxes, another payroll tax hike, a medical device tax, reducing income tax deductions for medical expenses, eliminating the corporate income tax deduction for certain healthcare expenses, and limits on the corporate income tax deductions for certain compensation health insurance companies pay.

Obamacare is the biggest, most aggressive change agent of the Obama administration. It has fundamentally changed the way in which the government views healthcare: As a necessary expense for which taxpayers ought to foot the bill. Forget personal responsibility; forget your doctor; forget community and faith-based organizations. The government will now have its hand in your healthcare – your options, your insurance, your costs, and even your quality.

It’s a giant lurch in healthcare policy, for sure, but it’s also something else – a giant cost that, like tomorrow’s sun, keeps on rising. Even the Congressional Budget Office under the direction of an Obama appointee recognizes the harmful effect of this monstrous law.

CBO has estimated that Obamacare will result in 2.5 million job losses by 2024 due to a decline in the number of full-time workers in the workforce. This is because Obamacare will actually incentivize people to work less, “given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”

The employer mandate to provide health insurance will dramatically impact new hires, as “some business also may decide to reduce their hiring or shift their demand toward part-time hiring.” CBO notes that even the botched roll-out of Obamacare has probably kept some employers from hiring employees they would have otherwise.

In essence, Obamacare isn’t about healthcare. It’s about saddling the American public with new taxes; crippling the economy; and rendering citizens so dependent upon the government that we have no choice but to rely on the government for our basic needs – starting with a strategically planned healthcare law.

Think I’m joking? Consider Obama’s stimulus package, which included a provision known as the “Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act.” States could qualify for a temporary infusion of federal funding if they’d just liberalize unemployment insurance programs. Obama wanted states like Mississippi to increase unemployment taxes to pay for an expanded program, such as paying UI benefits to individuals who only worked part-time.

This goes against the very idea of unemployment insurance; it’s designed as a stop-gap while individuals look for a full-time job that will lead to self-sufficiency. That’s a goal shared by many policy wonks I know. The fewer people on the government rolls, the better.

Yet Obama and his colleagues don’t seem to want self-reliance. They want government reliance.

That’s why I hope Republicans – regardless of who they support on June 3 – will channel their primary election energy into fighting the liberal agenda pushed by President Obama and his followers.

We simply can’t afford to give Obama and the Democrats a pass this go-around…unless, of course, you want the government handling your personal affairs.

That certainly doesn’t sound very “free state,” does it?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tort reform not just about lawyers

*First appeared in the May 7 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

“Every small business is one lawsuit away from bankruptcy,” proclaimed then-gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour on the 2003 campaign trail. Promising “more and better jobs” by eliminating Mississippi’s position as a judicial hellhole, Barbour’s message of tort reform resonated with voters.

In 2003, I of course had no idea what a tort was. A dessert, maybe? It sounded delicious. Desserts weren’t often in need of “reform,” so I did some digging. Here’s what I found.

Jackpot justice had developed a niche in Mississippi. Our legal climate was scaring off potential employers and threatening the livelihood of existing businesses. As more lawsuits were filed, fewer doctors stayed in the state. Medical facilities were shuttering their doors due to rising insurance costs. In the Delta, one hospital even closed its emergency room because the county government couldn’t pay its medical liability bills.

Frivolous lawsuits had given Mississippi’s economic and healthcare climate a black-eye at a time when the state could least afford it. In 2003, the state was in debt, and jobs were being lost at an alarming pace. Without aggressive action to reform the state’s civil justice laws, Mississippi’s future hung in the balance.

These were the high stakes of the governor’s race in 2003, so in looking back it’s easy to understand why voters were passionate about the issue. Gov. Barbour kept his promise and successfully convinced the Legislature to pass what the Wall Street Journal called “the most comprehensive tort reform law in the nation.”

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the Tort Reform Law of 2004, which is probably a good time for all you non-attorneys to ask: What does tort reform really have to do with me?

I’ve hinted at the broader implications of lawsuit abuse. Of particular interest to Mississippians, especially in the days of Obamacare, is the impact of lawsuit abuse on our healthcare system. Without appropriate laws in place, doctors and hospitals couldn’t afford to stay in Mississippi. Former state senator Neely Carlton told a group Monday that, prior to tort reform’s passage, more than 500 Mississippi doctors had let their licenses expire in one year and that at least seven Mississippi counties didn’t have a single OB/GYN.

After the new laws were passed, however, insurance rates dropped, new insurance companies entered the market, and the largest health insurance writer in the state began writing new policies. The comprehensive tort reform law ended the healthcare crisis caused by lawsuit abuse.

In a post-recession environment where job growth still lags, the economic impact of civil justice reform can’t be overlooked. Prior to tort reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Mississippi 50th for its unfair legal climate several years in a row. Businesses not only had to weigh the impact of the “lawsuit abuse tax” (costs of hiring lawyers to defend against frivolous lawsuits), they also had to factor in the nuisance value of settling out of court with people filing these lawsuits.

Mississippians for Economic Progress previously estimated that lawsuit abuse had cost Mississippi about 10,000 jobs and another $1,000 per household in economic impact.

Tort reform stopped the hemorrhaging. Businesses begin to view Mississippi as a viable place to do business. Toyota, which has created thousands of jobs in northeast Mississippi, said it would not have considered locating in Mississippi without tort reform. Other major companies have located or expanded operations here in Mississippi. (GE Aviation expanded operations to include a plant in Ellisville. I’m not saying tort reform was the primary cause, but it certainly didn’t hurt.)

Legal issues remain hugely important to job creation. The 2013 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, a collaboration between Deloitte and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, studied more than 550 CEOs and senior manufacturing leaders. They found that legal and regulatory concerns were the fifth highest drivers of competitiveness, outranking other factors such as physical infrastructure, energy costs, or even government investment.

Mississippi has enjoyed a pro-growth, business friendly legal environment since the passage of tort reform. Leaders would be unwise to deviate from the proven results of these laws.

But don’t take my word for it. Actual experts on the issue will gather in Jackson to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the law during the “Mississippi Tort Reform: Ten Years After” conference on May 14. The conference will highlight successes of the law, as well as future risks. Anyone interested in attending the event can register online – simply google the name of the event or visit the Mississippi Economic Council’s website and look under “What’s Happening” (www.msmec.com).

"MISSISSIPPI TORT REFORM: TEN YEARS AFTER" - FREE TO ATTEND. REGISTER HERE.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ukraine situation tests American resolve

*First appeared in the April 30 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary about Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz death camp survivor on a one-woman mission to unconditionally forgive her Nazi captors and, in particular, the psychotic geneticist Dr. Josef Mengele who experimented on her and her twin sister.

Unbeknownst to me, this past Sunday also marked the annual Israeli memorial for the 6 million Jews killed in Nazi death camps during World War II. This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day came on the heels of an eerie hoax, which consisted of leaflets being passed out in eastern Ukraine saying Jews must register with pro-Russian separatists, pay a fee, and declare property holdings.

While the leaflets have now been declared fakes, you can imagine my shock upon reading headlines about anti-Semitic pamphlets being distributed in eastern Ukraine. It caught my attention then and keeps my attention now.

Hoax or not, the leaflets evoked strong responses from leaders across the world. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the papers, saying they were “not just intolerable” but “grotesque.” Another spokesman for the White House called these reports “chilling, outrageous, and must be universally condemned.” I agree. These actions must be condemned, the perpetrators must be found out, and they must be dealt with properly. There should be no leniency when it comes to the distribution of such pamphlets in a part of the world where tensions are already at a boiling point.

Beyond the anti-Semitic hoax, the showdown between Russia and Ukraine continues to play out on the world stage in a production that appears to cast Russian President Vladimir Putin as leading man. President Obama’s role as co-lead hasn’t yet materialized, and all signs point to a man intent on playing a supporting role.

Monday, the President and European officials announced sanctions on Russian government officials and businesses in an effort to put economic pressure on Putin so he’ll cease military activities in Ukraine. According to the Wall Street Journal, their actions were “expected more than a week ago” and “fell significantly short of the expansive sanctions of Kiev’s government and many members of Congress have been demanding.” The Moscow stock market actually jumped on Monday as investors “found the latest sanctions to be less severe than anticipated.”

The so-called sanctions didn’t target broad sectors of Russia’s economy, such as energy, banking, or military. Apparently too many members of the European Union have economies more closely linked to Russia’s than the U.S. Others feared that such drastic measures would erode efforts at achieving peace through diplomatic solutions. Because of these concerns, the U.S. didn’t take more severe actions, White House officials told multiple newspapers this week.

More than a few public voices have openly questioned whether the United States President is taking concrete actions to control the situation in Ukraine, and why the U.S. – not the E.U. – isn’t guiding strategy decisions.

In an editorial, Newt Gingrich reminded Americans this year is “the centennial of the First World War. One-hundred years ago this month, in April 1914, no one thought there would be a war. But war began, triggered by events in Easter Europe…It came as an enormous shock, in retrospect almost like the Titanic hitting an iceberg.”

Of Obama’s actions, Gingrich (he wrote the column prior to this week’s announcement) opined the Obama administration is doing too little in this very difficult situation, which presents an enormous danger. “The world will become less safe as we show weakness to our allies,” and America’s weakness is being driven by clumsy, wandering decisions on how to deal with a dispute that, in Gingrich’s words, could “land us in a war no one intends.”

“We need a national debate on what our policy is going to be,” Gingrich urges the President, and then we need to engage our European allies on what our policy is going to be.

No doubt President Obama has had similar thoughts. But he cannot operate in the vacuum of public policy; he must also take into consideration public opinion. Even Gingrich admits the American people are tired of wars. To borrow a quote from Neville Chamberlain: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Without question, President Obama is in a difficult position. At best, he’s simply caught in the middle of escalating tensions between a power-hungry Putin and an American alliance that cannot defend itself against without our help. At worst, Obama’s reluctance to take stronger actions has emboldened Putin as he seeks to “reconstitute the Soviet empire.” Anti-Semitic hoaxes that remind the world of the monstrosities of an out-of-control German leader add fuel to the already blazing fire.

The President doesn’t have an easy path before him. But he must take the right steps to prevent further escalations. Mistakes at this juncture won’t easily be made right.