Members of the Coast legislative delegation are hoping that a renewed pledge for a unified voice for the 2014 legislative session will begin to move the needle for economic development in South Mississippi.
The big-ticket economic issues for this session will likely be health care, education, infrastructure (roads and bridges) and insurance. But despite a respectful tenor and support for unity shown during Decembers Economic Vibe pre-legislative session by the Gulf Coast Chamber, delegates gave a few hints that some of the same political polarization in the U.S. Congress may continue on the state level.
Progressive voice Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, said she would continue to make her focus this session on the Affordable Care Act something she believes is important for economic stability.
Many people think most of the need is in the Delta. Thats not a true statement, she said. The largest beneficiaries are on the Coast in the service area: tourism, cashiers and janitorial services. Those people fall in that bracket for affordable health care.
Rep. David Baria, D-Waveland, also criticized the states attention to health care with the rejection of Medicaid expansion that could help 200,000-250,000 people who dont have access to regular health care.
However, top on his agenda will be to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education program and to figure out a way to increase revenues for infrastructure development such as bridges and roads. He said investment in infrastructure will not only create immediate jobs, but it also would lead to improved commerce.
Over the last 10 years, the rich have gotten richer and the middle class has been squeezed, he said. Theres been no increase in middle class income and no increase in net jobs in Mississippi since 2003.
Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, a supporter of the public school charter movement, was critical of Common Core, the program of federal educational standards that will apply to all public schools, fearing that the federal government will indirectly dictate curriculum through set standards. This is a business community issue, he said, because it will impact our children and our future.
Watson, Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Gulfport, and Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, emphasized insurance as the most important issue facing business growth. One of the biggest issues we will face for the next five to 10 years will be the Biggert-Waters Act, DeLano said. The act is the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, which went into effect Oct. 1. Under the law, homeowners must pay the full-risk rate, which reflects the full risk of being flooded. As a result, new rate increases have been substantial.
But, DeLano said the Legislature is limited in what it can do.
We have very little input, he said. But we can take a chip here and there with policy issues, and let the public know the impact this will have.
We need to increase competition on the Coast and decrease the dependency on the wind pool underwriters association. We are making progress to get some bills passed to lower the cost of insurance for as many people as we can. But we cant go up there with a heavy hammer.
Watson said one insurance bill he will pursue is a catastrophe savings account that can be used for hurricane deductibles. If we can get the level high enough, most of us can be self-insured, he said. Its the first step of many to piece-meal this together.
We want to attack this thing from all angles.
Tindell suggested something similar to the Property Insurance Clarity Act passed in Alabama, which required certain insurers in the state to submit catastrophic weather event data by zip code. When complete, consumers would be able to examine the number of claims made as far back as 2007, to make sure insurance charges are reasonable.
He also said more could be done to champion the state as a tourism destination.
Tindell admitted he didnt appreciate the level of tourism the whole state offers until he became vice chairman of the senate tourism committee. But, I still think the driving factor is on the Coast.
I love Gulfport and the state of Mississippi, he said. As the Coast goes, so does the state. We put out quality students. We need to make sure that comes back to us in grants and new manufacturing and that tourism and casinos thrive.
DeLano said it was important to work through differences in the Coast delegation. I think whats going to be the most important thing for us to do is to make sure we have a message from the Coast and we take that message through the entire delegation and fight for the issues that are important to us.