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A tale of two headlines

The same information released by State Auditor Stacey Pickering resulted in two quite different headlines.

“Study: Economic development incentives paying off for state,” read the headline in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

“Auditor: Failed economic projects cost Mississippi taxpayers $185M,” read the headline in the Clarion-Ledger.

Both are accurate, both based on the same report by Pickering, but both convey very different perspectives. So, too, do the stories.

The Clarion-Ledger story by Jerry Mitchell focuses mainly on the state’s economic projects that failed, 11 out of 243 from 2010 to 2017. The Daily Journal story by Bobby Harrison focuses mainly on the overall success of the projects.

“State Auditor Stacey Pickering says failed economic development projects over the past decade have cost Mississippi taxpayers more than $185 million,” begins Mitchell’s story.

“Despite failures that have the potential to cost the state $185 million, Mississippi has received positive results from its incentive programs designed to entice companies to locate in the state, according to a study conducted by the office of Auditor Stacey Pickering,” begins Harrison’s story.

Again, both are accurate, but convey different perspectives.

Mitchell’s story spends 14 paragraphs describing seven “green companies” approved as projects during Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration, most of which failed, some of which may cost the state as much as $180 million in losses. He focused in particular on the biofuel company KiOR bankruptcy that may cost the state $76.3 million and the $74.8 million loan to Stion, a solar panel manufacturer that located in Hattiesburg. While calling these losses, he did quote Attorney General Jim Hood who said, “as soon as a company that promised to deliver jobs and money to the state falls flat on its promise, our office will go after every penny it owes the taxpayers of Mississippi, just as we are doing now with GreenTech, Stion and KiOR.

Mitchell also quoted Columbus economic developer Joe Max Higgins who said about the KiOR plant that was located in Columbus, “Mississippi got screwed way bigger than it did with the (failed Yalobusha County) beef plant.”

Mitchell’s story does mention the one green company project that has been “a roaring success.” This is the View high-tech windows plant in Olive Branch that paid back its $44 million loan and has hired 335 employees.

He also pointed out that Gov. Phil Bryant, in contrast to Barbour, “prefers that Mississippi not invest in startup companies,” adding, “the state has lost far less from failed projects under his administration.” He failed to note, however, that Barbour’s projects failed after he left office and Bryant has not completed his second term.

Harrison’s story spends only three paragraphs describing losses, highlighting KIOR and Stion.

Both stories quoted Pickering’s key finding: “Economic development projects have been good for Mississippi. Overall, we have all benefited from industry being recruited to our state by economic incentives. However, we must remain vigilant in ensuring public dollars are only spent on industry with a track record of success instead of risky startup technology.”

Both cited Pickering’s statistic that the state’s five incentive programs have had “a return of $12 for each $1 invested” even when taking failures into account.

Two tales, two perspectives. But no fake news.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.