By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
Armed with a "blueprint" for progress in the state, the Mississippi Economic Council, which bills itself as the state's chamber of commerce, has long worked to broaden economic progress.
MEC has focused on such issues as education and health care opportunities, and this year is working to shed a light on the need for better infrastructure and making the state more competitive in its efforts to bring more business in.
Blake Wilson, MEC's president and CEO, met with Meridian business leaders last week to talk about the issues and to get their input.
"This year we are focusing on economic competitiveness. We're looking at work force," Wilson said.
Wilson said MEC is also considering recommending an update of the state's economic incentives, which haven't changed since 2005.
Following that, MEC will study infrastructure in the state and what needs to be done.
"We've got these crumbling roads and bridges situation but we've also got to make sure we're up to date on rail, we're up to date on airports," Wilson said. "We want to make sure that we are up to date on sewer and water infrastructure. Many communities are struggling with that."
Charlie Williams is a former state legislator who is now a government relations consultant. He also met with Wilson and business leaders in Meridian. Citing the need for road and bridge improvements throughout the state, Williams is lobbying to get the legislature to re-appropriate funding he said it has borrowed from the Mississippi Department of Education.
Williams said he feels good about the chances of getting between $100 million to $150 million a year for the next three years.
"That will give them time to work on it next year for them to come back in 2016, after the next election and pass a comprehensive program. They are going to have to decide where that money is going to come from and which roads are going to be addressed," Williams said. "We can't just stop and do nothing for five years. We've got to keep on maintaining the roads that we have. They are getting worse every year and the bridges are terrible in lots of places all over the state."
Lack of sufficient funding is not just something that the state struggles with, according to Williams.
"People primarily think about the road program as being the state roads but the cities and counties don't have enough money. They've got to have some help. Some of this money would go to help their streets and their county roads and their bridges that they might have."
Williams said between $500 million and $600 million has been borrowed by the Legislature from MDOT.
"The legislature will come in from time to time and borrow several hundred million dollars from that to help them balance their budget," Williams said. "Then they will pay that back. But they have a balance now of about $320 million that they have not paid back over the last three or four years. We don't want them to increase taxes, we just want them to go ahead and start paying that back. Everybody can live with that. We are hoping that's what they will be able to do."
Wilson said MEC will also seek a long-term solution to the issue of education in Mississippi.
"We are constantly complaining about being at the bottom," Wilson said. "We are constantly struggling with this."
There is progress being made, but Wilson said the state should commit to early childhood education, K-12, community and junior colleges, and institutions of higher learning over a period of 15 years.
Wilson said those who are interested in contributing to MEC's work may volunteer by going to mississippiblueprint.com.
"What we'll do as we start impaneling the work, they will be invited to be on a web conference call and listen, Wilson said. "They'll be asked to share, electronically, their thoughts with us."
Then MEC will assign participants to assignments based on their areas of interest, he said.