The Impersonator Grabs the Spotlight

Uh oh, former state senator Tim Johnson and Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef have turned the public spotlight on an ugly thing politicians like to keep under the rug.

Johnson is a successful impersonator, mostly of Elvis Presley. Nosef suggests Johnson also impersonated being a Republican. Over a 20-year period Johnson was elected as a City of Madison alderman, state senator, and Madison County supervisor – all as a Republican. Then, on February 4th, Johnson transfigured himself, announcing he will run for lieutenant governor as a Democrat.

“I guess this begs the question of whether he’s really been a Republican all these years or just a Republican impersonator,” Nosef told the Associated Press.

Say it ain’t so, Joe! There are politicians who impersonate their commitment to party, platform, or issues!?!

But wait.  What about all those state senators and representatives and city and county officials who converted from Democrat to Republican over the last several years?  Were they impersonating Democrats before they changed?  Or, are they now impersonating Republicans?

Has Johnson really changed? Or is he now impersonating a Democrat?

All this gets to that ugly thing – politicians who are willing to say and do whatever it takes to get elected, stay elected, and move up in power. The issue changes, they change. The electorate shifts, they shift. The opportunity to win requires a change, they change.

This is the down and dirty side of politics they don’t want spotlighted.

So, how is a voter to know if a politician is real or just an impersonator?

It’s hard.  Look at NBC news anchor Brian Williams.  He worked so hard impersonating a journalist with high integrity that his prime time show came to dominate other broadcasts. Then his untruths were outed and he was too (at least for six months). How was a general viewer to know Williams was an impersonator?

Fact is, voters should take all politicians (and TV journalists) with a grain of salt. After all, how many times have you seen them proven to be impersonators? Think and you can name several who were outed for impersonating moral leadership while secretly committing immoral acts, impersonating truth-telling when later found to be lying through their teeth, or impersonating honesty while later indicted for thievery.

This is not to say that all politicians’ changes are due to ugly things. Johnson suggests that conservative Republicans, driven to the right by Tea Party activism, left behind moderate Republicans, in effect pushing them out of the party or into the Democratic Party. Johnson will have to prove this based on his prior record, but it could be true.

Still and all, it would be enlightening if Johnson were to adopt the moniker Nosef has given him and run a Schwarzenegger-esque campaign as his real self, “the impersonator.”

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Mississippi Sports Heritage Second to None

“Stories worth remembering and savoring … again and again,” said Robin Roberts, co-host of Good Morning America.

Indeed.

Stories remembered and savored in the telling by Rick Cleveland in his book “Mississippi’s Greatest Athletes.”

Do you know the story of Roy and Commodore Cochran? “Cousins of Sen. Thad Cochran, both were track and field gold medalists, Commodore in 1924 and Roy 24 years later,” wrote Cleveland. Roy won two gold medals in the 1948 Olympics.

Or the early story of legendary Delta State baseball coach Boo Ferris? “In 1946, he won 13 straight games at Fenway Park. That is still a major league record,” wrote Cleveland.

Cleveland tells their stories plus those of greats like Bailey Howell, Charlie Conerly, and Willye B. White. Then there’s Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, Peggie Gillom, and on and on.

“When you read through the pages of this book, you will see what I am talking about when I say that Mississippi’s sports heritage is second to none,” wrote Archie Manning in the forward to the book.

Where do all these stories come from? Some from Cleveland’s 40 years as a writer covering Mississippi sports, but most from the one place that gathers, preserves, cherishes, and re-tells the stories of Mississippi’s greatest athletes – the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Robin Roberts made her comments at the close of the 1995 film she narrated for the museum.

“We need a new film,” said Cleveland, the decorated sports writer and author who took over as executive director of the museum in 2012 following the death of Michael Rubenstein.

“It is also outdated,” he said of the 20-year-old production. “Mississippians have won three NFL MVPs, three Super Bowl MVPs, and numerous Olympic medals in those two decades.”

On the day I dropped by to pick up two autographed copies of his book, I watched the old film and must agree it’s time for a new, high-def, updated version. Cleveland was meeting with officials from the Mississippi Film Office about a new film. The projected cost is $250,000, a lot but nothing compared to our priceless sports heritage. The museum, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, has begun fund-raising for the film (go to msfame.com).

Before I left, Cleveland took me by a video kiosk and punched up Shorty McWilliams, “the SEC’s only four-time all-SEC back in the league’s history.” You can see “Shorty Mac” telling the story of his first game at LSU’s Tiger Stadium:

“Unbeknownst to me, they rolled Mike the Tiger’s cage right up behind me. I didn’t know he was there, and that 500-pound tiger roared.” Go see the rest of the story at the museum, or read it in Rick’s book.

And help the museum continue to gather, preserve, cherish, and re-tell the stories or our greatest athletes.

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Keep Schools Free from Preventable Diseases

Health science saves lives, particularly in Mississippi.

Since scientific research by Dr. Jonas Salk produced the polio vaccine in the mid-1950s, vaccines developed by health scientists have brought seven major human diseases under some control – smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio, and measles. Unfortunately, hepatitis B is not yet one of them.

Mississippi can stand proud.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for 2013-14, Mississippi had the largest percentage of kindergartners in public and private schools who have been vaccinated against diseases,” the Associated Press reported.

Mississippi’s success results primarily from a law that prohibits children from entering school until they get vaccinations prescribed by the state health officer. The state adopted this law to protect citizens, especially children, from “vaccine preventable diseases” – polio, hepatitis B, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox.

Comes now a group calling itself “Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights” wanting Mississippi to stand down when it comes to vaccinations. They want the law changed to allow for “conscientious objections” so their children can attend school without vaccinations.

Bless their hearts. They must not understand the awful history of contagious diseases before vaccinations.

But, are they so blind they cannot see that health science is a gift from God to ease pain, suffering, and needless death?

In 1952, prior to Salk vaccine availability, a polio epidemic in the U.S. left 3,145 dead and 21,269 paralyzed – mostly children. With the vaccine, polio had been virtually wiped out in America. It has now seen resurgence in areas allowed to refuse vaccines.

How many children, besides theirs, are they willing to put at risk?

In 2010, ten infants in California died from a whooping cough epidemic. Health officials researched the cause of the outbreak and found vaccine refusal among family members to be a key factor in the deaths.

Almost 100,000 new Americans get infected with hepatitis B each year. About 5,000 die from the disease and its complications. In areas of the world where vaccination rates are low, deaths are in the hundreds of thousands.

Do they know it just takes one?

In 2005, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, one unvaccinated 17-year-old girl returned to Indiana from a church mission Romania where she unknowingly contracted the measles. That led to the largest documented measles epidemic in the U.S. since 1996. A similar measles epidemic recently started at Disneyland.

Surely no responsible leader would willingly open school doors to contagious disease. We have enough issues for our health scientists to deal with as it is. And this is one we have under control.

Pray most legislators and our governor understand that public safety is a proper function of state government, and that includes keeping our schools free from preventable diseases.

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More Jobs, But Fewer with Jobs, Huh?

“Mississippi added 8,800 more jobs in 2014 than in 2013,” so noted Gov. Phil Bryant in his optimistic State of the State address last week.

Over the same period, 16,700 fewer Mississippians had jobs. So says the same report that the governor’s figure came from.

Huh?

The Mississippi Department of Employment Security, as do its counterparts across the country, publishes two sets of employment statistics. One set counts people, the number of Mississippians who have jobs. This is called residence-based employment. The other counts jobs, the number of jobs at Mississippi-based employers. This is called establishment-based employment.

The obvious difference between these two sets is that some people work in different states than where they live. All those folks working at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula who live in Alabama count toward Alabama residence-based employment, but also count toward Mississippi establishment-based employment.

There’s more.

Residence-based employment counts self-employed, unpaid family, domestic and agricultural workers while establishment-based employment does not (except for some agricultural workers like veterinary and landscape workers).

Also, residence-based employment only counts a person one time. Establishment-based employment counts the number of jobs, so a person holding two or more jobs will be counted multiple times.

The Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget Office, the president’s board of economic advisors and most who seek to examine the economy utilize establishment-based data because it counts jobs, which is a measure economic activity. Residence-based data is primarily used to compute the unemployment rate.

Job growth, job creation, job retention – now those are the stuff of economic development.

People with jobs and people without – now those are the stuff of politics.

Last year was the third year in a row the average number of Mississippians with jobs declined. Not a politician’s dream trend.

On the other hand, manufacturing jobs are up and the unemployment rate is down. That’s better.

On the third hand, Mississippi’s labor force participation rate – the number of people with jobs and looking for jobs divided by the working age population – has been declining since 2011. A declining rate points to growth in the welfare economy not the prosperity economy. This not only puts pressure on politicians, but also on the state budget as more people depend on Medicaid and government subsidies to survive.

Bryant’s bold proposal to put $50 million into job training could bring many back into the labor force, if the legislature approves and it accelerates job growth.

The good news for politicians is that things may be turning to the upside. The bad news for politicians is many Mississippians are still on the downside. The news for the rest of us is we’ll get to hear all about both sides from now to November.

(Thanks to State Economist Darrin Webb for helping me understand the numbers.)

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Higher Ed Boards Face Leadership Choices

IHL Commissioner Hank Bounds has accepted the job as president of the University of Nebraska system. Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College system, has announced he will retire this year. So both the IHL Board of Trustees and the Mississippi Community College Board (MCCB) find themselves seeking new leaders.

The IHL Board of Trustees is a “governing” board. As such it has complete authority over Mississippi’s eight public universities. For years the board allowed university presidents to operate with little oversight and only had an executive secretary to coordinate system activities. Over the past two decades, the board has moved to implement a strong commissioner system. Bounds was the first commissioner given significant say so over university presidents, an often bumpy transition.

The MCCB is a “coordinating” board. It has limited authority over community colleges, each of which as its own local governing board. The local boards hire the presidents. The principal role of the MCCB is to distribute state money. The MCCB also oversees the state’s post secondary vocational programs and workforce training activities. Clark’s hiring was a move away from a traditional educator/manager to a more politically attuned operator.

In past times when both university and community college presidents served long tenures, they held significant clout with the legislature. While some university presidents still have clout for their individual institutions, their power as a group has waned. For years community college presidents were admired or hated for their exceptional clout. Now that is waning. Both Bounds and Clark were hired, in part, because of their relationships in the legislature and the hope they could bring home the bacon.

It will be interesting to see what both these boards do now.

Will the IHL board ratchet up the commissioner role to a chancellor over all universities or maintain the strong manager role Bounds played? There are no apparent emperors-in-waiting to become chancellor. If the board chooses the status quo it could bring Mississippi University for Women president Jim Borsig back. He served as a deputy commissioner under Bounds, has excellent managerial skills, and is a calm, effective leader.

The MCCB held a low-key search to replace Clark and ended up with two educator/manager finalists. Then, Gov. Phil Bryant pushed to open the process to individuals with workforce development and business experience without a Ph.D. That prompted a strong letter from the SACS Commission on Colleges protesting political interference. Last Friday the MCCB deadlocked a second time on next steps. Will it heed the governor and consider someone like Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and chairman of the State Workforce Investment Board? Or will it stick with one of the two educator/managers from its first search?

Board choices will impact higher education for years to come.

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Keep Education Funding Out of the Courts

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) that was designed to keep education funding out of court is now in court, and may stay there for years to come.

In the mid-90s, lawsuits popped up in many states over inadequate funding for schools, particularly those in impoverished areas. Mississippi was at risk because of its many low-tax-base schools providing inferior education. In 1997, the Mississippi Legislature fully adopted MAEP to better fund poor schools and avoid potential litigation. MAEP was to be fully phased in by 2002.

However, MAEP has only been fully funded twice, in 2003 and 2007. The latter occurred after the legislature enacted the following language in 2006, “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.”

Last year former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and a group of lawyers went to court on behalf of 21 school districts. They want the state to make-up shortfalls in MAEP funding since 2010 and fully fund MAEP going forward. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood in vigorously defending the state said, “one session of elected legislators cannot dictate the discretionary budgeting and appropriation authority of a future session of elected legislators.”

The Chancery Court in Hinds County will consider this case sometime this year.

Meanwhile, public education proponents gained enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment initiative on the ballot this November that will, unsurprisingly, require the legislature to fully fund MAEP.

If passed, this initiative will give Chancery Courts authority to enforce full funding of MAEP.

How ironic that a program designed to avoid litigation is becoming dependent on litigation.

Proponents of MAEP act as if its funding formula is sacrosanct.

The legislative PEER Committee, State Auditor Stacey Pickering, and full-funding opponents see problems. PEER said the formula failed to incorporate efficiency measures. Pickering said audits showed little accountability once school districts receive lump sum MAEP funds and inflated enrollment figures distort allocations. Gov. Phil Bryant said MAEP is not effective.

Others point to education needs in Mississippi not included in MAEP, such as early childhood education, a priority of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Blueprint Mississippi.

Bryant staked out the Republican position on MAEP earlier this month. “We are unwilling to put money into a formula that has not proven to be effective and that appears to increase the administrative expenditures more than the classroom. Republicans are very willing to fund things that work in education.”

The Republican controlled Legislature should listen to the governor. It has the opportunity to adopt a revamped adequate education program that works. This would show that Republicans do consider education funding a priority and provide truly “adequate” funds to our schools in need.

Education funding does not need to be in the courts … or in the constitution which precipitates court involvement.

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MDOC Controversy Reveals Contract Procurement Weaknesses

The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) controversy has exposed weaknesses in the state’s contract procurement processes.

With regard to MDOC, the legislature exempted many contracts from competitive procurement, cracking open the door for abuse.

Allegations have surfaced that even competitive bids can be manipulated. Vendors allege being directed to bid low to get contracts with promises they would be rewarded later, and being strongly encouraged not to bid or asked to submit courtesy bids so preferred bidders could win contracts.

Many large personal and professional service contracts were awarded as “sole source” contracts. That means competitive procurement (bids, RFPs, and RFQs) was avoided. State agency heads have the power to sole source contracts subject to compliance review by the State Personal Service Contract Review Board and a legal review by in-house assistant attorney generals. As currently constituted, the board only considers the compliance review. Members are not asked to use their own expertise and judgment to assess the need for, or pricing of, these contracts.

Whistleblower and oversight mechanisms that might catch unscrupulous actions by agency heads are missing or not functioning.

Governor Phil Bryant appointed a special task force to review MDOC contracts and state contract procurement. Its members are co-chairs Andy Taggart and Judge Robert Gibbs plus Mike Moore, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, and myself.

The task force submitted preliminary recommendations to the governor on December 31st. These include eliminating all legislative exemptions for MDOC contracts or providing an independent review of such; voiding all MDOC contracts, where possible, that were not competitively acquired; reconstituting the Personal Service Contract Review Board with expertise needed to independently review contracts; requiring all state agencies to competitively procure contracts of $100,000 or more; prohibiting or requiring public disclosure of any vendor use of third-party consultants in acquiring state contracts; requiring state agencies to post pre-notices, solicitations, and award analyses for bids, RFQs and RFPs on the new “State Contract/Procurement Opportunity Search” website; establishing and/or promoting confidential hotlines in offices of the Attorney General and State Auditor for citizens and state employees to report suspected wrongdoing; and requiring a financial status review of state agency heads at least every four years.

Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn has sought to revamp the Personal Service Contract Review Board. The task force takes his approach further by making the board fully independent and requiring members to have expertise in financial, medical, and corporate procurement. This resembles the independence and expertise of the Information Technology Services board that reviews IT contracts.

The legislature’s PEER Committee in 2013 recommended more transparency in state procurement. The task force builds on this recommendation by requiring all solicitations to be published along with pre-notices and bid award analyses.

Actually eliminating contract procurement weaknesses will be up to the governor and legislature.

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