Legislature Undercut Fisher’s Efforts to Clean-up MDOC

Why did the Legislature make the job of new MDOC Commissioner Marshall Fisher so hard?

Following the indictment and resignation of the former commissioner, Gov. Phil Bryant in December appointed the formidable Fisher to head up the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “His first mission will be to detect and eliminate any criminal activity that occurs within our correctional facilities,” said Bryant.

In addition to the criminal activity of former commissioner Chris Epps and gang activity within the prisons, MDOC personnel have been accused of extortion, sexual solicitation, and theft.

Fisher told the governor’s Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Mississippi Department of Corrections his top priority would be to transform MDOC’s low-paid, poorly trained, correctional officers into a highly trained, professional force. He said it would take training and higher pay to remove the enticement of corruption from his workforce.

Starting pay for correctional officers at $22,005 is “well below what it should be,” he said. “We spend money getting people trained to work and then will lose them because they get higher paying jobs.” Last year 806 correctional officers had to be replaced out of a total of 1,700. “Parole officers are sworn peace officers who attend the same 10-week certification academy as Jackson police officers, yet their beginning salary ($25,718) is much lower,” he said, adding, “as investigators they should earn more than highway patrol officers ($37,000).”

To get anywhere with his transformation plan, Fisher said pay for correctional, probation and parole officers must be increased across the board. Also, because of the increased number of parolees resulting from passage of House Bill 585 last year, MDOC needs more parole officers.

Fisher took his transformation plan and salary realignment request to the Legislature, asking that his appropriation be increased by $11 million.

What did they do?  They cut his appropriation by $12 million.

Undeterred, Fisher is forging ahead the hard way. He started massive shakedowns and lockdowns at state prisons, confiscating cell phones, contraband, and shanks, sending a clear message to prisoners and prison personnel alike that he won’t tolerate criminal activity.

To make up for budget cuts, he plans to stop state-county work programs at local jails in August to save $3 million annually, upsetting sheriffs around the state. Inmates will be transferred from programs in 30 counties to fill unused capacity at MDOC’s 17 community work centers.

He is also looking to save about $4 million and eliminate vestiges of corrupt contracts by rebidding contracts for medical care, commissary services, and facility management services.

He also wants better outcomes for prisoners, but that will take even more resources.

Newspaper owner and columnist Wyatt Emmerich has the best line on this: “We need a New Testament prison system, not an Old Testament one.”  (See more at http://www.cdispatch.com/opinions/article.asp?aid=41051)

Commissioner Fisher has the experience, integrity, and drive to transform our prison system, if the Legislature will cooperate.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

McCullough Will Have Hands Full at MDA

Eminently qualified to head up the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), Glenn McCullough won’t have a cakewalk.

Gov. Phil Bryant announced McCullough’s appointment last Thursday, saying, “He can build a consensus and get things done. We have great momentum in Mississippi, and Glenn will take that success to the next level.”

First, though, McCullough must grapple with budget and staffing issues and changing priorities.

MDA will have an extra $1 million in general funds to spend next year, but $66.8 million less in special funds. And out of these special funds MDA must spend $3.671 million on election year, legislative earmarks. So, the budget will be tight.

(Yes, Republican leaders in the Mississippi Legislature allow earmarks!)

McCullough will also step into an agency changing its priorities. The new priorities come from the closely-held 2014 Blueprint Mississippi Economic Competitiveness Study contracted for by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC).

One priority led MDA to decide to close its eight regional offices and eliminate 11 positions (10 currently filled). MDA’s Jeff Rent told the Mississippi Business Journal, “The decision to close the regional office program is based upon several factors, including the agency’s efforts to implement recommendations from the recent competitiveness study.”

So what did the study say that led to this action?  That’s confidential said MDA, ask the MEC. That’s confidential said MEC.

One source finally told me the study showed MDA spending too little on new business development and too much on existing industry. So, with the budget tight, MDA has chosen to re-direct regional office funds to new business development, including foreign job recruitment.

(Now, what about that needs to be confidential?)

While the finally revealed rationale is understandable, closing the regional offices poses a risk. For most small communities, regional office staff are the only MDA people they’ ever see. MDA risks disconnecting with these communities and, thereby, their legislators.

MDA hopes another competitiveness study recommendation can fill the gap. Last Thursday the agency launched its new web site, http://www.choosemississippi.org. “The development and launch of the new website is the result of the findings of a 2014 competitiveness study funded by Mississippi Economic Council,” said a Mississippi Business Journal blog. “The comprehensive website features essential economic and industry data for the state’s target industries and workforce development resources.”

MDA hopes communities will use the site and other modern technology to link businesses and prospects to the agency.

(Whatever the study said about a web site was kept confidential too.)

MDA will also count on Jackson-based asset development staff and project managers to reach out to communities. However, a number of project manager positions are unfilled.

Trying to recruit jobs in the midst of MDA’s changing priorities, a tight budget and unfilled positions, and the risk of small communities becoming disconnected will leave the talented McCullough with his hands full.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Get Ready for November Ballot Perplexity

The differences between Proposition 42 and Alternative 42A are stark.

Huh?

Well, for those not up to speed, Proposition 42 is the constitutional amendment on public school funding that over 116,000 citizens forced onto the ballot for this November. Alternative 42A is the substitute amendment that 30 senators (out of 52) and 65 representatives (out of 122) forced through the legislature and will also appear on the November ballot (the exact wording is being contested in court).

Proposition 42 would, in effect, require the Legislature to comply with existing law to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).

Alternative 42A wouldn’t.

(MS Code Section 37-151-6 reads, “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.”)

Proposition 42 puts the onus for action on “the state” and gives Chancery Courts authority to enforce compliance.

Alternative 42A puts the onus for action on “the Legislature” with no specified court oversight.

Proposition 42, according to its sponsors, is necessary, because the legislature refuses to follow the law and fully fund the MAEP, and is fair, because it would only take 25% of new tax revenue each year to phase in full funding.

Alternative 42A is touted by its sponsors as a way to keep education funding decisions out of the courts and in the hands of the Legislature, just like all other state appropriations.

(Of course, the issue is already in court. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and others have initiated a lawsuit to force the Legislature to live up to its own law.)

Proposition 42 would require “the state” to support both an adequate and “efficient” system of free public schools.

Alternative 42A would require “the Legislature” to support an “effective” system of free public schools “as the Legislature may prescribe.”

Proponents of Proposition 42 haven’t said much about what they mean by “efficient.”

Proponents of Alternative 42A speak clearly about what they mean by “effective.” House Speaker Philip Gunn said, “The operative word in the alternative is effective. We want schools that are accomplishing something…schools that are effective.”

Got all that?

Well, get ready for this.

When you get to this issue on the November ballot, you will have five choices…yes, five. You can skip it, and many will. You can vote “No” against making any change to the constitution, or “Yes” to make some change. If you vote “Yes,” you can vote for Proposition 42 or for Alternative 42A.

Phew!

But there’s more. To pass either 42 or 42A, first the Yeses for some change must outnumber the Nos. Then, the selection with the most votes must garner at least 40% of the total votes cast in the November general election. If a lot of voters skip this issue on the ballot, the 40% threshold will be hard to reach.

Perplexed? Join the crowd.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Boyce Takes Hot Spot as IHL Commissioner

Ready or not, Dr. Glenn Boyce has been named IHL Commissioner. He steps into the hot spot abandoned by MUW president Dr. Jim Borsig and recently vacated by now University of Nebraska system president Dr. Hank Bounds.

A high performer for nine years as president of Holmes Community College, Dr. Boyce came into the IHL system just last summer as associate commissioner for academic affairs. Earlier this year when Dr. Bounds decided the grass was greener in Nebraska, Dr. Boyce’s name was mentioned as a potential successor, but soon dropped because of his limited time “in the system.” Instead the IHL Board picked MUW president Dr. Jim Borsig.

An Ole Miss graduate, Dr. Boyce takes the job in less than ideal circumstances. The board’s termination of Dr. Dan Jones as Ole Miss chancellor ticked off many power players in Mississippi and gave rise to speculation about the board’s reliability. When, days later, Dr. Borsig turned down the commissioner job to stay at MUW, speculation ramped up even higher that things aren’t right with the board.

“It goes from bad to worse for the College Board (IHL),” wrote Associated Press writer Jeff Amy. Hilarious cartoons by Marshall Ramsey have only aggravated the problem.

The board moved quickly to replace Dr. Borsig. “I think if we had been in what might be called ordinary times, there might have been some consideration of an expanded search,” said board president Aubrey Patterson. “But, I think we would have come to the same decision.”

Indeed, a leadership void at IHL at this time would be unwise.

In early May four board members (Patterson, Ed Blakeslee, Bob Owens, and Robin Robinson) roll off and four new ones (Thomas Duff, Dr. Alfred McNair, Glenn McCullough, and Chip Morgan) come on. The four outgoing members clearly contributed to the board’s current situation. The four new ones will need time to learn the ropes and get in the game.

What impact will these changes in leadership have?

In the worst case scenario, disagreement between old and new board members, conflict with the new commissioner, and mayhem in the search for a new Ole Miss chancellor could lead to the diminution of the historically powerful IHL Board. Plus any of these would further fuel efforts to get the legislature to revamp or weaken the board.

In the best case scenario, people will work together, the Ole Miss search will go well, and legislators will calm down.

So, ready or not, Dr. Boyce gets the job to manage the complex IHL system – “we believe he has the vision and ability to lead the universities,” said Patterson – and the difficult challenge to resuscitate the board’s reputation.

Dr. Boyce has the educational and leadership experience to be an effective commissioner. Whether he can be the IHL Board’s savior is quite another matter.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Bryant Confronts Tale of Two Mississippis

The tale of two Mississippis persists.

One Mississippi is made up of people comfortable with their way of life. Some are well off and more than comfortable. But, for others, their hard-earned finances along with faith, family, and friends make their lives good enough. For the most part, this group might like a tax cut, but surefire oppose tax hikes. They lean heavily toward the taxed-enough-already political philosophy.

The other Mississippi is made up of people struggling to get by, people depending on others to get by, and lost people ranging from the homeless to chronic criminals. Taxes don’t matter much to this needy group, but, for many, opportunity does. They lean heavily toward the spend-more-for-us political philosophy.

While the comfy Mississippi dominates politics today, the needy Mississippi dominates demographic trends.

Since 2009, the percentage of low-wage jobs not improved, holding steady around 37%. Educational attainment rates of high school through university graduates showed no improvement. The percentage of Mississippi children living in single family households continued to worsen, now 48%. The rate of births to unwed mothers held steady at 55%. The percentage of low-income Mississippians qualifying for SNAP (food stamps) grew 49.5%.

If these and other trends hold, it won’t be long before needy Mississippians outnumber comfy Mississippians. Not only does that bode ill for the state, it portends big problems for Republican politicians.

While it may be popular to cater to the comfy crowd, Republicans should realize their need to provide opportunities for more needy Mississippians to rise to a higher standard of living. Only Gov. Phil Bryant among Republican leaders seems to grasp this.

Bryant’s “Education Works” agenda called for more emphasis and new spending on early childhood education. It also established a “third grade gate,” modeled on a successful Florida initiative, that halts social promotion of third graders unable to read at grade level. Two promising initiatives, both greatly underfunded by the Republican controlled legislature.

Bryant’s “Mississippi Works” agenda emphasized workforce training and helping Mississippians get jobs. His business-supported proposal to put $50 million into strategic workforce training initiatives was killed at the last minute by legislative leadership.

Bryant’s proposal to provide an earned-income-tax-credit to benefit low-wage workers got nowhere in the legislature.

Low-wage workers are the most likely group of needy Mississippians for Republicans to target. They are already working hard and trying to improve. To really lift them up, a bold Bryant might consider a proposal to phase-in a decent state minimum wage alongside a major business tax cut. Conservative Arkansas voters passed their $9 minimum wage phase-in initiative overwhelmingly.

Proposals by Bryant to lift up needy, hard-working Mississippians provide a reasonable, forward-looking agenda. Comfy-oriented Republicans should get on board. If simply putting more money into education and existing programs was the solution, our two Mississippis would already be trending toward each other.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Will Voters Be Satisfied with Legislative Session?

The Mississippi Legislature wrapped up its 2015 session last Thursday, but it may not be through working for the year…nor should it be, say some.

When Senate and House conferees on Governor Phil Bryant’s popular $50 million workforce training bill suddenly let the bill die, speculation immediately began that Bryant will call a special session to revive it.

The bill died when Senate negotiators tried to turn the bill into both a tax cut for businesses as well as a workforce training bill. House negotiators didn’t go along with that substantive of a change.

The Senate under Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves clearly wants a business tax cut this year. Was this last minute move on the governor’s bill by the Senate a ploy to get Bryant to include a business tax cut in a special session?

“I hope the first thing on it (special session agenda) is the opportunity for comprehensive tax relief,” Reeves told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger, “there’s a possibility of putting several things together for a special session.”

This workforce bill debacle is just one of several incidents in Republican dominated state government that points to GOP leaders’ difficulty in working together. Allegedly, a recommendation by Bryant that management of prison agricultural lands be transferred to the Office of the Secretary of State died because some GOP leaders are disgruntled with Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. A similar proposal to transfer the Inmate Welfare Fund to the Office of the State Treasurer allegedly died because some in the GOP are disgruntled with State Treasurer Lynn Fitch.

And then there was the whole tax cut debacle in itself. The Republican Governor, Republican Lt. Governor, and Republican Speaker of the House all proposed tax cuts to the Republican controlled Legislature, but somehow none survived.

The real message from this session may be that Republicans can’t get along well enough to govern effectively.

Even before the session ended criticism was on the rise. The Biloxi Sun-Herald wrote last week:

“This session of the Legislature has been particularly irksome in the amount of political grandstanding it has featured, from a grandiose scheme to eliminate the personal income tax to a commitment to transparency and accountability that grows weaker as the session draws to a close.

“It is the shameful art of giving lip service to good public policy while undermining every effort to actually do something good.”

Legislators leave town with a long list of what they call “accomplishments” including authorizing $6.2 billion in total spending. This includes increased spending for education (K-12, community colleges, and universities), special needs students, and Medicaid but not much else. Legislators also authorized $450 million in new borrowing for a multitude of projects.

Will these accomplishments satisfy voters, or will something more be needed from a special session?

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Behavior Part of IHL Board/Jones Discord

“It was pride that changed angels into devils,” taught Saint Augustine.

Media reports on the controversy between Dr. Dan Jones, Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and the IHL Board of Trustees have painted Dr. Jones as an angel and board members as devils. That is not a fair characterization. Good people serve on the board and Dr. Jones has displayed piques of prideful behavior.

Appropriately celebrated publicly for upbuilding the university and its medical center, this affable, gifted leader chose to fight attempts by the IHL Board to improve lax business practices and inadequate controls at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “I was unwilling to replace people at the medical center who I thought were honest, hardworking people trying to make this problem better,” he told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I was unwilling to throw them under the bus.”

That Dr. Jones took great pride in the medical center and its staff and was unwilling to make changes desired by his board was one issue. But, it was his manner of unwillingness that became the terminal issue. The personas university presidents present to public constituencies do not always resemble the personas they present to the IHL Board. Dr. Jones’ behavior in private meetings with the board on the medical center over the past two years has been described as angry, uncooperative and defiant.

Finally, a large majority of the board decided Dr. Jones’ unwillingness and behavior had gone on long enough. They began to discuss not renewing his contract.

This is not to say board members contributed nothing to the deteriorating relationship. Strong, prideful board personas pushing hard to get their way can stir emotions and umbrage in strong university leaders. But it’s up to presidents to adapt to the board, not the other way around.

Two weeks ago all this came to a head when Dr. Jones insisted the board tell him the status of his contract. When board members said they did not see a way for renewal to pass, he reportedly stormed out of the meeting.

As this column was written there were reports that negotiations between the board and Dr. Jones were occurring. Actually, incoming IHL Commissioner Jim Borsig was talking with Dr. Jones to see if he was now willing to take steps to reconcile with the board. However, attacks on board members by Ole Miss supporters were making them bow up.

“It is humility that makes men as angels,” goes the rest of Saint Augustine’s quote.

An meaningful turn to humility by both the Chancellor and IHL Board members will be needed to sustain any reconciliation that may occur.

NOTE: This same opportunity occurred in 2013 when the board offered Dr. Jones a mid-term contract extension out to 2017. It came with the proviso that he address the issues at the medical center and be more responsive to board oversight. Mid-contract extensions are standard board actions. Reportedly, the Chancellor bowed up over the medical center provision so no extension occurred.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment