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Education also priority for campaign

The Mississippi Express Campaign stopped briefly in LincolnCounty Monday morning to confer with business leaders andindividuals about the needs of the area and to update them onissues being pursued by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC).

MEC President Blake Wilson asked the dozen business leaderspresent to stay abreast of the issues among election candidates andto respond to those issues.

“I urge you to take a look at what you might do and to keepinformed of the issues,” he said.

Wilson urged them to post their concerns or compliments to theMEC website because they are regularly passed on to thelegislators.

In one case last year, the MEC carried more than 1,000 responsesgathered within three days on tort reform to the legislature . Thenotices, Wilson said, had an impact on the final decision.

“We need to keep up on the issues before our futures are carvedonto the courthouse floors,” he said. “The old model where businessleaders would come to Jackson and spend a lot of time in committeesis gone. You don’t have time for that.”

Wilson first briefed attendees on tort reform, education, fiscalpolicy and economic development before taking questions from thefloor.

He recapped the major reforms in tort reform during last year’s83-day special session, which saw a cap in punitive damages andeliminated damages based on “how much fun an injured person mayhave had.”

“That was quickly becoming a gold mine in litigation,” Wilsonsaid.

Overall, Wilson said, some strong strides were made in tortreform, but the journey has not been completed.

“We made some significant first steps in improving Mississippi’stort climate,” he said, “but there’s more to do.”

This year, Wilson said, the MEC is focusing on placing caps onnon-economic damages in lawsuits, greater venue reform, protectionfrom liability for innocent sellers targeted in lawsuits and moreimprovement in medical malpractice.

During the question and answer session, Craig Haskins, ofCommercial Developers Inc., said medical malpractice reform isstill greatly needed.

Haskins knew a doctor in McComb who was leaving because of thetort climate. He said the doctor paid $125,000 per year inmalpractice insurance and was moving to Atlanta, where he would payonly $10,000-15,000 for the same coverage.

“In effect, he just gave himself a $110,000 raise,” Haskinssaid. “Who wouldn’t move?”

Wilson agreed and said he hoped those “few significant firststeps” would continue to see further improvement ahead.

Education, which saw several major improvements in recent years,will continue to be a focus of the MEC, he said.

“Education is MEC’s number one long-range priority,” hesaid.

Last year, legislators passed laws to increase teacher pay,passed an education accountability law, committed 62 percent of itsgeneral fund to education and put more computers in the classroom,Wilson said.

Now, he said, the state needs to follow through with what itstarted. He complimented the legislators on the general fundcommitment and said that was a positive step not only in education,but also for economic development.

Developers look very positively on states committed to educationand only a very few have made that significant of a commitment, hesaid.

Holding to the accountability will be difficult, Wilson said,but necessary.

According to Wilson, State Superintendent Harvey Johnson hasestimated that only 25 percent of Mississippi schools will meet theminimum standard of the accountability law during the firstyear.

That’s not necessarily a negative, Wilson said.

“This will establish a benchmark and draw a line in the sandthat sets the standard,” he said.

Change will not come overnight, he warned. It will take smallincremental changes done over time to make exponential progress inthe entire system.

“It is a tough accountability process,” he said. “We’ve got toparticipate with our schools and help them through this.”

The MEC’s plan on education is to focus on continued funding,improving teacher quality, implementing a strategy for earlychildhood education and making the new accountability systemcount.

“If we consolidate and focus on these, we will see improvement,”Wilson promised.

Wilson’s brief on fiscal policy discussed the taxes and therecession and the need to keep funding within reasonablelimits.

Raising taxes to provide additional state funding “is not aforegone conclusion,” he said, adding that it’s not animpossibility either.

He said a comparison among states in the region and with similardemographics needs to be made and studied before considering araise in taxes.

Last year’s passage of the Advantage Mississippi Initiative, afocused economic development package of incentives for prospectiveindustries, was a major step forward, Wilson said.

“We were virtually last in every sector of our industryincentives,” he said. “Now, we’re in a good position in many ofthem.”

The state’s commitment to “cluster” economic development wasperhaps the best thing to come from the session, he said. A”cluster” approach towards economic development is to concentratethe economy, through recruitment and expansion, in industrial areaswhere the state is already strong, he said.

“It’s the old concept of fishing where there are fish,” Wilsonsaid. “This is probably the greatest thing to come out of thiswhole economic development study package.”

Mississippi’s economic strengths lie in the timber, automotive,polymer, food and fiber and telecommunications industry, he said,so the “cluster” approach would work towards expanding andenhancing those industries.

“The challenge is the economy is down,” he said. “By positioningthe state to be ready when the economy improves, we will be in abetter position to encourage industries to move here and forexisting industries to expand.”

Future MEC goals are to expand workforce training opportunities,provide greater incentives for the expansion of existing industriesand to further strengthen industrial infrastructure, such ashighways and roads, he said.