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Jobs, including at local offices, must be protected, Barbour says

Gov. Haley Barbour addresses the annual banquet of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce at the Vicksburg Convention Center Thursday night.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[1/23/04]In one of his first speeches since taking office, Gov. Haley Barbour outlined plans for protecting and creating jobs, including those at Army installations in Vicksburg.

Barbour, inaugurated 10 days ago, was keynote speaker at the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce annual meeting at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

He said state government should not raise taxes, should enact more tort reform and needs to streamline and update workforce-development and job training.

Also at the meeting, the chamber, a business development and support organization, installed its officers for 2004.

They are Cheryl Comans, president; Mike Smith, president-elect and divisional vice president; Jimmy Clark, treasurer; and Larry Gawronski, Margaret Gilmer and John W. Smith, divisional vice presidents.

Donald Cross is the 2004 chairman of the chamber’s Economic Development Foundation. The EDF’s co-chairman for the year is John C. Moss, and its treasurer is Mark Buys.

All U.S. military installations will be subject to consideration for closure under the federal Base Realignment and Closure process, the next round of which is scheduled for spring 2005.

Barbour stressed the need for the state to oppose closures of any bases in Mississippi. They employ about 36,000 people with a direct annual payroll of about $1.3 billion, he said.

Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman and Washington lobbyist, said he would work with groups including the Mississippi Base Communities Council, the state’s Congressional delegation and the Bush administration to prevent any such closures.

He specifically mentioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center, which manages half a billion dollars in research facilities here and elsewhere in the country from its Waterways Experiment Station site off Halls Ferry Road.

“It is likely that the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg will be subject to BRAC,” Barbour said, adding that the site’s payroll ranks second among state military installations, behind Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base.

Corps reorganizations have been challenging to Vicksburg in the past, but Corps operations here, staffed and managed by civilians, have not been part of the base-closure process.

Still, Barbour said the 2005 BRAC round could be “the most severe ever, if Secretary (of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld has his way.” Rumsfeld would like to close 20 to 25 percent of all bases, he said.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Barbour said. “We shouldn’t underestimate that, and Vicksburg shouldn’t underestimate that.” The governor added that Mississippi is one of two states that has never had a base closed under BRAC.

“There is no base-closure list as such right now,” Lee Youngblood, a spokesman for Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss, said today. He added that, nevertheless, “We should always assume these bases are going to be in danger and start from there.”

A spokesman for ERDC, Bobbie Galford, commented similarly.

“ERDC has no specific information at this point about whether our sites will or will not be part of the 2005 BRAC,” Galford said. “However, it is our understanding that all military installations in the continental United States and its territories will be examined as part of the BRAC process.”

Vicksburg Army facilities also include a Corps divisional and district headquarters. Together, employment is about 3,500 people.

Scheduled to address the state on television Monday night, Barbour also gave more details on his plans for turning recent net job losses to the state’s employers into gains.

Barbour also offered a specific proposal to further reform the state’s civil-liability system for medical-malpractice claims.

“We need to follow the lead of some other states and create an independent review board of experts so that in every medical-liability case, before it could go to court, it would be reviewed by the independent review board,” he said.

Cases in which the board found that no wrong had taken place could still go to court, Barbour said. If the people pursuing them lost in court, however, they or their lawyers would be liable for the defendant’s legal costs.

“I think it’s very reasonable, if the independent review board has found there was no liability and the plaintiff insists on going forward, then the plaintiff should go forward on a loser-pays basis,” Barbour said.

Legislators, in a special session called last year by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, enacted some civil-justice reforms, but Barbour has pushed for more. He stressed that relieving financial pressure on small businesses would be one of his plan’s main benefits.

“Big business can pass along the cost,” he said. “Small businesses can’t. It’s small businesses that are being strangled by lawsuit abuse and the costs that go along with it.”

Barbour also repeated that the state’s current system for job-training “doesn’t give community colleges enough of the franchise in workforce development, and I’m determined to do something about that.”

He cited statistics indicating that the proportion of the country’s jobs requiring “high skills” as opposed to lower ones or college degrees has grown from about 20 percent in 1950 to 65 percent today.

“We don’t have enough people who’ve got those middle- and high-level skills that are needed in this knowledge-based, world economy that we live in,” he said.

“We owe it to our working people to give them the chance to acquire the skills that they need so that they can have better and higher-paying jobs for their families. This is not just about industrial development, this is about fairness. This is about giving the people of our state what they need just as much as having public schools K-12.”