Tupelo shaken (not stirred) as Shelton focuses on priorities

Mayor Shelton had no idea what challenges faced Tupelo when he began his term on July 1, 2013.

Jason Shelton‘s first year as mayor of Tupelo included violent shootings of law enforcement officers, a destructive tornado leaving behind millions of dollars in residential and property damage, encouraging recovery efforts and even finding ways to manage day-to-day local government functions.

The first-time elected official and first Democrat elected as Tupelo’s top executive in three decades spent time this week reflecting with Daily Journal politics and government reporter Robbie Ward. Not stuck too much in the past, Shelton also shared plans looking toward his second year including the upcoming budget process, consideration of public transportation, neighborhood redevelopment efforts and more.

Read Ward’s full-length story here about Tupelo government during Shelton’s leadership. No, we didn’t forget about the City Council. Read about the council’s first year experiences here.

Mayor Shelton asked council members to raise their hands if they had a good year.

Interested in Tupelo’s public transportation efforts? Ward 4 councilwoman Nettie Davis said the idea isn’t dead. Click here for the latest.

And what about Ward 6 councilman Mike Bryan? Find out here.

Comment below with your thoughts and questions.

#MSSen post-election deconstruction, implications

Mississippi’s summertime temperatures reach temperatures hotter than nine circles of Hell. Mix in rising blood pressure of tea party supporters since Tuesday night, spontaneous combustion could rise in the Magnolia state.

Unofficial returns show six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran squeaked by tea party favorite state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a margin of 1.8 percent. Remember, McDaniel received 1,386 more votes than Cochran in the GOP primary earlier this month. A third candidate receiving 1.5 percent forced the runoff.

McDaniel showed how much fight left him during his election-night speech at his Hattiesburg campaign party. For those uncertain, the tea party challenger seems unwilling to coalesce with the establishment GOP anytime soon.

And to be sure McDaniel spokesman Noel Frisch emailed this at 4:10 p.m. today.

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate (sic) issued a statement following a closely contested primary runoff election rife with irregularities.

Invoking Ronald Reagan’s message of liberty, freedom, and balance budgets, traditional values, and personal responsibility, McDaniel called for scrutiny of the election’s irregularities and for a thorough examination of the core principles of the Republican party.

“The conservative movement is alive in Mississippi,” McDaniel said. “The Republicans who voted last night made it clear they’re looking for conservative change in Mississippi.”

“But the results also tell another story,” McDaniel continued. “They tell the story of some members of our party who are willing to engage in tactics unbecoming of the party of Ronald Reagan. It’s no wonder so many conservatives don’t feel welcome in the Republican party,” McDaniel said.

“If our party and our conservative movement are to co-exist, it is paramount that we ensure the sanctity of the election process is upheld. And we will do that. In the case of yesterday’s election, we must be absolutely certain that our Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

“In the coming days, our team will look into the irregularities to determine whether a challenge is warranted,” McDaniel continued. “After we’ve examined the data, we will make a decision about whether and how to procede,” he concluded.

A spokeswoman for Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said today political parties have 10 days after the election to certify the results.

Read Daily Journal Capitol reporter (and fellow blogger here) Bobby Harrison’s story of the runoff election here.

 

(Despite American Family Association President Tim Wildmon looking tired during our election-night coverage, the video really begins at Chris McDaniel’s post-election speech, definitely not a concession.)

 

Earlier today I spoke with Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, about the bruising primary battle’s national implications, defiance of traditional political thinking and bizarre events intermingled.

 

 

Based on McDaniel supporters’ Facebook posts after the election, Cochran shouldn’t expect to easily woo them in the general election – or ever.

Politico this published this related analysis piece today by Larry Sabato, Kondik and Geoffrey Shelly.

NOTE: You can read the Facebook comments if you use the zoom feature at the top right of the embedded document.

Might be effort at revisionist history on PERS’ 13th check

 

JACKSON — Somehow the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) has entered the debate in the contentious U.S. Senate race between incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel.

They, of course, are vying for the Republican nomination in the June 24 runoff.

PERS is the retirement system for state and local government officials and educators. The U.S. Senate has nothing to do with PERS.

But McDaniel, who is a second-term state senator, has pointed out he has introduced bills, which died, to eliminate the supplemental retirement benefits that legislators receive in addition to PERS.

Somewhere in the debate the issue has expanded to include who might have been for eliminating, reducing or in someway changing the annual cost of living increase retirees receive. It often is referred to as he 13th check since retirees have the option to take the cost of living payment in one lump sum each year.

Former staffers of Gov. Haley Barbour have taken exception that it might have been said or implied during the Senate campaign that Barbour and his PERS Study Committee advocated changes to the cost of living increase. The issue has arisen because the former Republican governor is in many ways Cochran’s top political surrogate

For the record, the chair of Barbour’s PERS Study Committee, former Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, did say publicly in 2011 that in studying the retirement system, everything must be on the table, including the 13th check.

And in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2011, Barbour said, “To ensure pension sustainability consideration should be given to modifying the current benefit structure, including accrual rates and automatic cost-of-living adjustments, for current and prospective state employees.”

I am not sure what it has to do with the U.S. Senate race, but it is clear that on more than one occasion Barbour spoke of making changes to the PERS’ cost of living adjustment. He lamented on more than one occasion that the system was costing the state budget too much money.

And, if not for a Democratic-controlled House at the time, he must likely would have been successful, as he was with most of his proposals in the Senate.

Cochran refuses to discuss politics at campaign stop

By Robbie Ward
Daily Journal

Cochran

Cochran

TUPELO – Embattled GOP U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran neck-deep in the political fight of his life rolled into Tupelo today for what appeared to be a campaign event but refused to talk politics.

The campaign bus for six-term incumbent Cochran arrived at the tornado damaged Joyner Elementary School this morning, but the senator refused and then ignored questions from reporters about the campaign.

“I’m not here playing politics,” Cochran said. “I’m here to help out.”

Cochran visited the small group of mostly public officials and campaign supporters for roughly 20 minutes, never entering the school.

As Cochran left the outside entrance of the school, a staffer shielded him from reporters asking questions.

“We’re running late guys,” the staff said, his arm around the 76-year-old U.S. Senator.

Cochran’s campaign had a scheduled stop at a rural medical clinic in nearby Mantachie, less than 20 miles away.

If Cochran didn’t see the event as a campaign stop, he didn’t inform supporters. As Cochran returned to his bus, longtime supporter Paul “Buzzy” Mize reminded the group to vote. A campaign staffer also recorded video of the visit.

McDaniel

McDaniel

Cochran’s refusal to discuss politics seems baffling to political observers three days after the primary election, finishing 1,386 votes behind tea party darling and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 41.

Leading to the primary election Cochran’s campaign limited reporters access to the candidate. Comments to reporters he did make sometimes resulted in gaffes and statements later walked back by the campaign.

Mississippi’s GOP primary has turned into one of the nastiest political slugfests in recent state politics. It also pitted the state Republican status quo against activist tea party supporters who strive for less compromise on issues.

Big money, special interest PACs and super PACS have poured cash and support into state to support and attack both candidates.

A June 24 runoff election between the two candidates will determine the Republican nominee to face Democratic nominee and former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers.

Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker also appeared at the school visit with Cochran and told reporters about the importance of the senior Mississippi senator’s role in securing federal resources for education, emergency management and many other state needs.

Cochran, Wicker and U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper toured Tupelo two days after the April 28 tornado that ripped through the Joyner neighborhood and other parts of the city and Lee County.

Cochran will be chairman of the powerful appropriations committee if he wins reelection and the GOP gains control of the Senate, a prediction of many political pundits.

While Cochran remains silent on campaign matters, his key strategists plan to highlight McDaniel’s voiced opposition against the U.S. Department of Education and federal education support.

Cochran supporter, former Republican National Committee chairman and former Gov. Haley Barbour told the Daily Journal earlier today differences in federal education support between the two senate candidates will be a game-changing in the runoff election.

“I am certain if every registered voter knows McDaniel wants to stop federal funding of education in Mississippi the turnout will go up,” he said.

At stake in Mississippi’s GOP primary

Daily Journal government reporter Robbie Ward and John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow in governance studies and managing editor of the the FixGov blog, will discuss what’s at stake in today’s election between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

Hudak has analyzed the primary elections in the eight states today and identified Mississippi’s GOP Senate election as possibly the most brutal and muddy races this election season. This broadcast originally aired at 7:30 p.m. June 3 at djournal.com.

Feel free to comment below. We’re always open to future topics, guests or other feedback.

It’s Confederate Memorial Day at Mississippi Capitol

 

JACKSON — It catches me by surprise nearly every year.
On a Monday morning in April I drive up to the Capitol where I work in the fourth floor press room and see an empty parking lot.
What gives, I ask? Where is everyone?
Then I realize it is Confederate Memorial Day — a state holiday.
I have been working in the state Capitol since June of 1995, and I forget almost every year about Confederate Memorial Day until it hits.
Obviously, most people, like myself, are working today.
Mississippi recognizes Confederate Memorial Day, but most private businesses do not.
Interestingly, private contractors who are doing work to stop water leaks in the massive building are working on Confederate Memorial Day.

 

Religious Freedom goes to conference, correction made

 

 

JACKSON — OK, in this spot Wednesday, the facts were misremembered.

The House did not change what is known as the Religious Freedom Act so that it applied only to governmental entities. At one point, the House was considering doing that.

But instead the House changed the bill to make it a study to determine what if anything needs to be passed.

The original bill as it passed the Senate, according to some, would allow businesses to not provide services to people based on religious objections. Some contend, for instance, it would allow restaurant to not serve a gay couple.

But at any rate, the House made the proposal a study. And on Thursday, the Senate invited conference where House and Senate leaders will try to work out the differences in the legislation.

 

.

Religious Freedom Act remains in limbo

 

 

JACKSON — As the 2014 session winds down, most bills are in conference where House and Senate leaders try to work out differences or have been sent to Gov. Phil Bryant.

But one high-profile bill is still in limbo. The Religious Freedom Act that created so much controversy earlier in the session remains on the Senate calendar. It is on the “for concurrence or non-currencence calendar.”

Senators could concur in changes the House made to the bill and send it to the governor or invite conference to work out differences. Monday is the deadline to reach agreement should the Senate decide to send the bill to conference.

The bill is controversial because opponents say as it was passed out of the Senate it allows businesses to discriminate against groups of people, such as gays, for religious reasons. Some contend, for instance, it would allow restaurant not to serve a gay couple.

In the House, the bill was changed to pertain to actions by the government, not by a private entity. In other words, the government could not require someone to do something against his or her religious beliefs.

The issue became controversial nationwide after similar legislation was passed and later vetoed in Arizona.

The Mississippi bill also includes language placing “In God We Trust” in the state seal.

It will be interesting to see if the Senate leadership sends

the bill to the governor or to conference or simply allows it to die on the calendar.

 

Teachers now in catbird seat in Legislature

 

JACKSON — A bill providing a pay raise to teachers has yet to make its way through the maze known as the legislative process to become law, but rest assured that the state’s public school teachers are going to get a salary increase.
And the good thing — from the teachers’ perspective — has to be that there is now a bidding war going on between the House and Senate about which chamber is offering a bigger raise.
The original House proposal called for a phased-in four-year raise totaling $4,250 with the first $500 coming in January.
The Senate countered with a $1,500 raise on July 1, followed by another $1,000 the following July.
Now the House leaders say they want to do that, too, but still have a four-year package totaling $4,250. It should be pointed out that the final two years of the House package will be dependent on state revenue growing by at last 3 percent.
The bottom line is that teachers can count on a raise of at least $2,500 by July 1, 2015, including $1,500 of that amount on July 1, and who knows where the bidding war will end.
In the end, the original proposal of Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, to offer a $5,000 raise, which is now the official position of legislative Democrats, still might become law.

MSU may have violated political policy, ethics questioned

This photo of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and other public relations materials by Mississippi State University staff may have violated the university’s political activities policy.   Photo by MSU’s Office of Public Affairs

 

Mississippi State University officials may have violated the institution’s policy on political activities related to promotional materials for the university president’s former boss, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a candidate for re-election amid a heated primary election.

Multiple parts of the university policy on political activities appear to have been violated when MSU used taxpayer resources to publish and distribute photos and a news release about Cochran, an incumbent wanting a seventh term.

Cochran’s campus visit Feb. 19 involved sharing with about 30 students his experience crafting the $956 billion farm bill signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier that month. Of course, public universities have academic freedom to expose students to elected officials and politicians. However, MSU’s political activities policy prohibits use of employees, equipment and services to assist political candidates.

“State or federal funds or other resources may not be utilized in any way, directly or indirectly, to advance or attempt to advance the cause of any candidate or political party,” page one of MSU’s policy states.

Cochran’s MSU visit happened between campaign stops that included events in Columbus, West Point, Tupelo, Oxford and Greenville.

The senator’s campaign staff posted photos of the other campaign stops but not the MSU visit. Instead, university staff in the Office of Public Affairs took professional photographs of the candidate interacting with students and wrote a glowing news release about his expertise on farm policy. Staff materials published on MSU’s website and then used a taxpayer-funded database of statewide news media contacts for distribution.

Keenum

MSU President Mark Keenum served 18 years as chief of staff for Cochran, 76, first elected to the Senate in 1978 and now finishing a sixth six-year term. After a stint as Undersecretary of Agriculture, the Board of Trustees at Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, the governing board for Mississippi’s public universities, appointed him to as president of the land grant university with heavy agriculture ties.

The university president’s ties to Cochran represent just a slice of MSU’s direct connections to the longtime senator.  Cochran’s savvy negotiations in delivering congressional earmarks led to $2.5 billion in federal money flowing into the state during fiscal years 2008-2010, each year Cochran earmarked ranked first among 100 Senators in earmarks sponsored, according to the data from the Center for Responsive Politics. MSU received significant chunks of that federal funding.

MSU’s $43 million in 2007 ranked the university first among public universities in the nation receiving congressional earmarks, according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ole Miss ranked second that year with $37 million in projects.

Altogether, MSU activity related to promoting and supporting Cochran may have violated four parts of the university’s nine-page political activities policy. It prohibits preferential treatment of political candidates, instead calling for “equality” of treatment of all candidates. The policy requires the university to invite all candidates who have qualified for the office to receive the same level of treatment as any candidate who has appeared at the university.

The university’s political activities policy makes no exemption for incumbents seeking re-election.

When Cochran appeared at MSU, his Republican primary opponent Chris McDaniel, 41, and Democratic candidate Bill Marcy, 67, had also filed qualifying papers for the U.S. Senate race with

McDaniel

McDaniel

state political party offices. Federal Election Commission records show McDaniel’s statement of candidacy documents on file since Oct. 22. Other candidates qualified last week to try and unseat Cochran.

Among other Mississippi public university policies on political activities reviewed, MSU’s document provides the most lengthy and thorough guidelines and explanations for activities prohibited. Multiple of the state’s eight publicly funded universities do not have policies that address prohibited political activity for the institution. IHL does not have a policy related to defining acceptable political activities at state-funded universities.

Most university employees also qualify as state government employees and must follow state personnel policies. Mississippi State Personnel Board’s policies and procedures manual also prohibits “agencies” from directing state employees to provide services for or against political candidates.

National political pundits have identified Mississippi GOP U.S. Senate primary as among the most competitive in the nation. National political groups advocating for less federal government spending have targeted Cochran this campaign season, pumping more than $1 million to attack the senator or promote his opponent. Cochran has worked to appropriate billions of federal tax dollars to many programs throughout the state through congressional earmarks, often called porkbarrel spending.

Congress ended the practice of earmarking money for projects back home in 2011 after an outcry of abuse.

McDaniel and Marcy both have said they would support less federal spending in all states.

Marcy

McDaniel did visit the university on Nov. 16 to speak to a student organization but review of the university’s news release archives showed nothing promoting the state Senator’s campus visit. Marcy last visited MSU as part of a candidate forum in 2008 when all Congressional candidates received invitations to interact with the university community.

Both McDaniel and Marcy’s campaigns confirmed the university has not informed them of any plans for photos and a news release for publication on MSU’s website and distribution to news organizations that received the Cochran material.

Sid Salter, director of MSU’s Office of Public Affairs, said the university did nothing inappropriate related to supporting a candidate in the Senate race. He said the university did not publicize Cochran’s visit until after the senator left campus and did not mention incumbent’s heated GOP primary race in the news release published and distributed.

“I don’t think we could have made that experience any less political,” Salter said during a lengthy interview last week. “The release that the university put out made no mention of the campaign or any aspect of that.”

MSU routinely has elected officials visit the university’s campus and produces related promotional material. It’s not immediately known how many have visited amid political campaigns.

Brett Kittredge, communications director for state auditor Stacey Pickering, said “gray areas” exist related political activities on state universities and wouldn’t comment on possible violations of state law. He said the auditor’s office must first receive an official complaint before any inquiry could make any official determination.

The Sun Herald, a south Mississippi newspaper, published a column last week by Pickering related to a dustup from a Politico story about McDaniel’s campaign that included criticism of government waste during disaster relief efforts. Pickering defended Cochran’s leadership in providing federal funding for relief and rebuilding in the state after Hurricane Katrina.

Experts on ethical actions of public, private and nonprofit leaders outside of Mississippi believe university officials made significant judgment lapses. James Abruzzo, co-director of Rutgers University’s Institute for Ethical Leadership, said all leaders face ethical dilemmas and must ensure they do not create the appearance of conflict of interest or favoritism. He said sometimes the appearance of these dubious activities is sometimes considered the same as a conflict of interest or favoritism, even if it breaks no laws or regulations.

Abruzzo reviewed MSU’s political activities policy and the news release resulting from Cochran’s visit and said the policy seems very explicit, going to great lengths to describe circumstances not permitted.

“While one could argue that the circumstances in question, however they are interpreted, do not break any policies, they certainly present the appearance of favoritism toward one candidate,” Abruzzo said. “The fact that the university may benefit from the candidate’s influencing government appropriations, simply exacerbates the situation.”

 

Disclosure: I worked as a research writer at Mississippi State University’s Office of University Relations (now Office of Public Affairs) as I completed my master’s degree in public policy and administration and until I resumed my journalism career full-time in May 2012. I never officially worked with Salter at the university and had accepted a position at a Pennsylvania newspaper before he was appointed director of the office. However, I did write a news release in December 2010 about Salter speaking at a fall commencement.

 

 

MSU’s political activities policy

 

MSU’s Feb. 19 news release

 

Mississippi Public Personnel Board’s policies and procedures manual

 

 

Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning policies related to political activity