Showing posts with label Mississippi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mississippi. Show all posts

Monday, April 21, 2014

Extension Service holding forums to show telecoms that Mississippi, lowest in Internet use, wants access

Experts say Mississippi ranks dead last in the U.S. in Internet use, but it's not due to lack of interest. Many of the 22 percent who don't use the Internet live in rural areas where they lack access to it, Danielle Thomas reports for WLOX-TV 13 in Biloxi. And in some rural areas where service is available, the cost is steep, sometimes running $70 or $80 per month.

"Most Mississippians live outside the city limits. Because of that, experts say going online can be a challenge. They say in rural areas, Internet access is usually either poor or non existent," Thomas writes. "Experts said until there is better Internet access, Mississippians will continue to be on the wrong side of the digital divide."

That's why the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service "is hosting community forums hoping to gain public support to convince Internet service providers there is enough demand to warrant expanding their coverage areas," Thomas writes. Regional Broadband Coordinator Andy Collins told Thomas, "We're trying to bring them together, and we want to show the providers there are enough people here that are interested that want Internet. If you bring Internet here, there are a lot of people here who are willing to subscribe to it." (Read more) (2011 Census Bureau map)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Farmers and food-stamp recipients in Mississippi Delta want Farm Bill to reduce uncertainty

In Belzoni, Miss., the disagreements over the Farm Bill—any version of which would cut food stamps and change farm subsidies—match those in Washington but are about real lives, not government policy. "Since 1995, farms in Humphreys County [Wikipedia map] have received about $250 million in subsidies [and] nearly half of the county's 9,100 residents receive food stamps, one of the highest rates in the nation," Ron Nixon writes for The New York Times. 

These facts draw a clear line between those who fear cuts in food stamps and those who could receive more subsidies. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill would eliminate direct payments but expand crop insurance by $10 billion a year, while the House version would take 5 million people off food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Nixon writes.

No one is sure how these changes will affects Humphreys County residents, but state officials are concerned. "Anything that reduces the program further will have an impact and could result in families' going without the benefits that get them over the hump every month, particularly in a country like Humphreys," said David Nobel, the state operations director at the state Department of Human Services, which administers the food-stamp program, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.

Nixon lays out the farm subsidies: "Under the existing program, farmers can buy insurance that covers poor yields, declines in prices or both, allowing them to guarantee about 85 percent of their income," but the new bill would "guarantee about 90 percent of their income." Thomas Bond, a cotton grower whose onetime 8,500-acre partnership of farms has received $4 million in federal subsidies in the last seven years, said, "Farming is risky business. Farmers need a safety net." Some groups, such as the liberal Environmental Working Group and the conservative Heritage Foundation, have criticized the crop-insurance program, saying it mainly benefits insurance companies and well-to-do farmers.

All arguments aside, Bond wants Congress to pass the bill because without it, farmers find it difficult to plan for the future. "There's a lot of uncertainty, and that's not good when you're a farmer," he said. "Banks are reluctant to loan us anything when they don't know how they are going to get their money back." Uncertainly works both ways. Monica Stokes, a clerk at a local store, was cut off from $167 per month in food stamps because her income rose slightly. "People are uncertain about where their next meal might come from," she said. (Read more)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mississippi pastor bans fried chicken at church, promotes Obamacare in a state hostile to it

The Rev. Michael Minor, pastor of Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Hernando, Miss., started encouraging his community to be healthy when he banned friend chicken at pot-luck dinners and installed a walking track around the church. Now he's volunteered for a much more daunting undertaking: trying to get "the state's nearly 275,000 uninsured people to sign up for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act," Julie Steenhuysen reports for Reuters.

Minor waves during an Obamacare rally. (Reuters photo)
When Minor became Oak Hill's pastor in 1996, he found that many in the community were obese, and people were dying young as a result. Since he took action, people have become healthier. "You can see the difference," Minor told Steenhuysen. "People are much better sized, way better. And once they get it off, they want to keep it off."

Minor and his church are one of two organizations that received a federal "navigator" grant challenge with the task of helping people sign up for coverage under Obamacare. "That man is essentially heading up outreach enrollment of the ACA for Mississippi. It's staggering," Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, told Steenhuysen.

People like Minor will be key in determining whether the law will succeed or fail, Steenhuysen writes, citing a 2012 study about the health of the states revealed that Mississippi is tied for last with Louisiana and suffers from high rates of obesity and diabetes. Minor said, "I'm a firm believer that people are limited because someone tells them they are limited. I tell my members we can do whatever we want to do. Let's just go for it."

Republican-led Mississippi has one of the governments most opposed to Obamacare. It refused federal funds for an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor, and it was left to use the faulty federal exchange when Washington rejected its application for a state-based exchange, Steenhuysen reports.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Supreme Court strikes down key section of Voting Rights Act

By a 5-4 vote Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court freed states and localities "with a history of racial discrimination from having to clear changes in voting procedures with the federal government," Richard Wolf and Brad Heath report for USA Today. The restriction had applied to nine states and parts of six others, mostly in the South. (Getty Images photo by Chip Somodevilla)

Chief Justice John Roberts said Congress failed to update the formula it used to determine which states and counties would be covered by that requirement to take account of changing circumstances in the South, Wolf and Heath report. That failure, Roberts wrote, left the court "with no choice" but to declare Congress' formula unconstitutional. Roberts wrote "our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and included Section 5, which required certain states and municipalities to get federal permission before making changes in voting practices, Wolf and Heath report. Section 5 has since been amended to add more areas, or subtract areas that have been free of discrimination for 10 years. (Read more) For more background, click here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Supreme Court to rule on Voting Rights Act this week

For nearly 40 years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has required "states, counties, cities, school boards, water districts and other jurisdictions where there has been a history of racial discrimination to submit any proposed voting changes to the Justice Department for approval," Campbell Robertson of The New York Times explains in a story advancing what is expected to be a decisive U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the law, as early as tomorrow.

"Shelby County, Alabama, is arguing that these covered jurisdictions are no longer any different from the rest of the country, and that the chore of compliance has become an unfair and costly burden," reports Robertson. "Proponents of Section 5 say the degree of progress in these areas is exaggerated, and many civil-rights advocates are fearful of a broad rollback of minority voting power."

Section 5, which was created in 1965, and has since been amended to add more areas, or subtract areas that have been free of discrimination for 10 years. (NYT map: Dark purple areas were included in 1965; light purple were added in 1970-75; orange have been deleted after being judged free of racial discrimination in voting for 10 years)
Jim Prince, editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss., opined this month that the South has changed dramatically since Section 5 was created. "Racism is wrong, but over the last 50 years the South has undergone basic, drastic change for the good," he wrote. "My experience has taught me that trust matters. Relationships matter when it comes to racial reconciliation. Communication matters. When good people do nothing, evil flourishes...When will the federal government stop punishing the South for the sins of our great-great-great-great grandfathers?"

Noting the election of a black mayor by Philadelphia's majority-white electorate, and vice versa in Greenwood, Prince wrote, "We no longer face obdurate segregationist regimes in state government seeking to oppress and entire an race of human beings . . . but a cottage industry has sprung up around race. The more profitable narrative is that not enough has changed in the South and we need the government to fix it. Better relationships and building trust is the answer, not more decades of government mandates." (Read more) Prince was interviewed for a CBS Evening News story that may appear tonight. He and former Democrat Publisher Stanley Dearman won the 2008 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, for the paper's work to promote racial reconciliation and bring to justice murderers of three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mississippi, tops in obesity, OKs 'anti-Bloomberg' bill

Mississippi may appear to be pushing to keep its spot as the most obese state in the U.S. The state Legislature passed a bill which says that any law that might restrict what Mississippians eat or drink has to go through them — barring federal regulations, writes Kim Severson of the New York Times.

The bill prohibits local governments from enacting rules limiting soda size, salt content, shortening in cookies, toys in fast-food meals, how a menu is written or just about any other aspect of the daily dining experience in Mississippi, writes Severson.

The bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Phil Byrant, is informally called the "anti-Bloomberg bill," in response to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal on food restrictions, which a judge struck down but is on appeal.

“I can’t defend what the statistics show about obesity,” said Sen. Tony Smith, who introduced the bill “But this is about personal responsibility. When I go out to eat with my three daughters they get waters. I don’t need the government to tell me to do that.”

The bill made the "Bizarre-O-Meter" of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, which opined, "The state faces dire education and health care problems. The economy’s a mess. So what’s one of the first new laws set to hit the books? A law protecting the sanctity of the Big Gulp, the Big Mac and the Twinkie."

Among Mississippians 18 and over, 68 percent are overweight and 34 percent are obese, according to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control. The study also found that 18.3 percent of Mississippi adolescents are obese.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nina Goolsby, longtime Oxford Eagle editor, dies

Nina Bunch Goolsby, co-owner of The Oxford Eagle and editor of the 5,000-circulation Mississippi daily from 1961 to 2006, "died Tuesday night on her 88th birthday," reports Senior Staff Writer Lucy Schultze. Goolsby's "folksy writings and persuasive sales approach defined Oxford’s community newspaper for half a century."

Goolsby started at the paper in 1942 as a bookkeeper. "She soon became the society editor and later moved into advertising," Schultze writes. "She purchased The Eagle in 1961 along with partners Jesse Phillips and W.S. Featherston. She continued to write her popular “Nina’s Notebook” column through the mid-1990s. With its blend of current events, folksy reminiscences and local color, it’s this daily column for which she’s best remembered across the Oxford community."

Nina Goolsby was what the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues likes to call an engaged journalist. "Far from the idea of journalist as dispassionate observer, 'Miss Nina' did more than just chronicle daily life in her community — she worked to shape, guide and promote it. She was involved in well over a dozen local clubs and organizations," and many civic causes, Schultze writes. “She was a force for what was progressive and good in the city,” former mayor John Leslie said. (Read more)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hurricane and a once-disillusioned journalist combine to create a paper in Pass Christian, Miss.

Hurricane Katrina produced a weekly newspaper for Pass Christian, Miss., which had not had one since 1990, Mississippi State University professor Larry Strout wrote for a paper presented at the Newspapers and Community Building Symposium at the National Newspaper Association convention in St. Paul, Minn., today.

When the residents of Pass Christian returned home, "Communication between the city’s residents and the local, state and federal government and volunteers was poor. So, some four-and-a-half months after Katrina, volunteers created the Gazebo Gazette," wrote Strout, who lived in "The Pass" before and after Katrina. The paper started as a free newsletter (first edition at right; click on image to view enlargement) but grew into a newsprint tabloid that now sells for 50 cents a copy.

"This is a story about a city left for dead . . . about a disillusioned journalist and volunteers teaming up to save a newspaper and the community," Strout said as he presented his paper. "One woman took this on her back and carried it." That was Evelina Shmukler, who came to the area to write freelance stories for The Wall Street Journal. After giving up on journalism and returning twice as a volunteer, she helped start the paper in January 2006, assembling it in Atlanta and shipping it to The Pass. Volunteers considered the project temporary, but by the fifth edition it was selling advertising and by Memorial Day, it had become a newspaper. Shmukler owned it, and she moved to The Pass. By August, she was writing editorials, and in December, she opened an office. Now the paper has been around long enough to cover another big hurricane (Sept. 5 edition is shown; click to enlarge).

"From the very start the Gazette was available online," Strout wrote. "While the evidence suggests that the hard copy version distributed at various locations throughout the city was invaluable for those citizens returning or looking to return to the city, clearly the online Gazette was vital for those who had relocated and either decided not to return or hadn’t made a final decision."

Shmukler wrote on the "Divine Caroline" site of Real Girls Media Network, "Every subscription, every renewal, is an affirmation. And then there are the kind words and nice notes–and the time recently that one of my early subscribers said to me that when they returned to Pass Christian after Katrina and saw the newspaper, they knew that the town would survive. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to know that what I do gives that kind of hope, not to mention a little bit of extra knowledge to make the re-building process easier for my neighbors. . . . I love the ways that my newspaper is journalism and also the ways that it breaks journalism’s 'rules' — for example, by being part of the community, rather than just covering it from a distance." To read the rest of Shmukler's account, click here. For a copy of Strout's paper, e-mail him at

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Columnist scolds McCain for saying cancel debate

With John McCain threatening to pull out of Friday night's debate at the University of Mississippi in rural Oxford, an area columnist is chiding the senator on his lack of "Southern manners." McCain says the debate should be canceled to allow both candidates to focus on the financial crisis, but columnist Wendi Thomas of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis notes McCain's family roots in Mississippi and says of his proposal to renege after a year and a half of planning, "That is just not done. And what's more, it isn't necessary."

While Thomas agrees there is a crisis, she says the debate would take relatively little time, a president must multitask, and cancellation would upset many. "It is tacky to renege on such short notice," Thomas writes. "And if McCain is indeed a no-show Friday, I'm sure the hosts at Ole Miss, in a gracious display of Southern hospitality, will nod understandingly and smile. But when the cameras are off, the hosts are going to be peeved." (Read more)

UPDATE, Sept. 26: Harry Smith of CBS asked Republican Gov. Haley Barbour this morning, "If you were a betting man, would you bet that John McCain" will be at the debate? "I am a betting man," the gregarious Barbour replied, adding that he would bet on McCain attending. (Sorry we can't provide full verbatim.) Barbour seems to have not only wishful thinking, but to be putting pressure on his party's nominee. Later in the day, McCain said he would show up.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Do fewer charges in Mississippi immigration raid signal policy shift? Justice Department says no

Of the nearly 400 suspected illegal immigrants were held during the May raid on the Postville, Iowa, processing plant, 300 were charged in criminal court. By contrast, only eight have been charged in the Laurel, Miss., raid that saw 600 detained, a move that may signal a shift in the Bush administration's approach to illegal immigration.

The Washington Post's Spencer S. Hsu reports that the Postville process raised questions about due process from criminal defense and immigration lawyers. Most of those charges resulted in five-month sentences. By contrast, most of those detained in the raid at Howard Industries in Mississippi faced civil deportation proceedings instead of criminal charges.

Despite the difference in the number of the criminal proceedings in the two cases, officials deny any policy shift. The Department of Justice "has not changed policies or procedures regarding immigration enforcement actions," said Carrie Nelson, a spokeswoman for the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. Instead, decisions in each situation "were made by prosecutors in the field based on the facts and circumstances of each case." (Read more)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Site of record immigration raid, Mississippi plant uses federal program to check workers' status

The Laurel, Miss. transformer plant that was the scene of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history uses "a federal system to check new hires' work documents, a program whose expansion the Bush administration has made a cornerstone of its fight against illegal immigration," The Washington Post reports.

While the E-Verify program "can determine whether a Social Security number presented by a worker is valid, it often cannot determine whether the number belongs to the applicant," write Post reporters Spencer S. Hsu, Alejandro Lazo and Darryl Fears.

"Major U.S. employers assailed the expanding crackdown, saying it creates a Catch-22. If businesses fail to enroll in E-Verify, they run the risk of a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said. But if they sign up, they face added costs, labor disruptions and discrimination complaints -- as well as the risk that flaws in the program won't stop all illegal hiring or prevent government raids, they said. ... A spokeswoman for ICE noted the investigation began two years ago, before Howard joined E-Verify."

ICE said it was deporting 475 workers; "106 were released for humanitarian reasons to tend to a child or a medical condition pending court appearances; nine were juveniles transferred to a refugee resettlement agency, and eight face charges of criminal identity theft," the Post reports. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Immigration raid nets hundreds, this time in Miss.

UPDATE, Aug. 27: The number of detainees is now 595, making it the largest immigration raid ever in the U.S., and it could go even higher. The Laurel Leader Call quotes ICE Communications Director Barbara Gonzalez as saying: "This is probably the largest single site target for law enforcement."

For the second time in three months, a major immigration raid has led to the holding of 350 or more suspected illegal immigrants. This latest raid, which follows the May detention of a record 389 workers at a food processing plant in Postville, Iowa, took place at a transformer plant in Laurel, Miss., a town of 18,000. Warrants were also served at the company's local headquarters. "The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed 350 people suspected as being illegal immigrants working at Howard Industries were found during a raid Monday," reports Jason Niblett of the Laurel Leader Call.

The paper notes that on Friday, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance warned of an impending raid in the area: “A series of preparations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the Gulf Coast has local advocates on edge about the possibility of yet another worksite raid .. " Bill Chandler, the executive director of the alliance, said the group is now "responding with humanitarian aid to the family members of the arrested.” (Read more)

Adam Nossiter of The New York Times notes that the Iowa raid "was a significant escalation of the Bush administration’s enforcement practices because those detained were not simply deported, as in previous raids, but were imprisoned for months on criminal charges of using false documents."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Memphis-area initiative aims to develop crops as feedstocks for industrial products

The Memphis Bioworks Foundation is promoting a "future in which farmers throughout the Mid-South [will] ship crops to Memphis, where chemical companies convert them into everything from paint to plastic bottles," writes Daniel Connolly in The Commercial Appeal.

"The nonprofit, which focuses on building up science-based businesses and creating highly paid jobs, is planning a big push into industrializing agriculture. They're calling the initiative AgBio. 'The long-term trend says that a bio-based economy is going to develop,' said Bioworks leader Steve Bares. 'That opportunity for job growth is something we want to be positioned for.' Bares and associates emphasize that the effort goes beyond bio-based fuels. The foundation envisions farmers growing special crops for industrial purposes and using non-edible 'biomass,' including leftovers like corn stalks, to make products such as lubricants, fibers and coatings."

"Bio-based products are a dramatically growing part of our domestic and the global economy," Bruce Scherr, head of Informa Economics, a Memphis-based agriculture consulting firm that focuses on agriculture, food and energy, told Connolly. Some time may pass before bio-based fuels take hold in the United States, he said: "The science for creating fuel out of cellulose remains crude, he said. But there's lots of potential to create lubricants, fibers and other products from biological sources."

A strategic plan for building up the agricultural industry in the Memphis area "should by ready by early 2009, and while it's being developed, the group plans to draw farmers throughout the area into the planning process," Connolly writes. Bares told him, "The message to farmers is this is clearly an opportunity for farmers to make money and to leverage the assets they have in hand."

Friday, April 04, 2008

Mississippi orders training for school board members in under-performing districts

Mississippi continues to have one of the nation's worst records in education — just yesterday The New York Times reported that the state ranked last in a national writing proficiency test — but lawmakers are trying another way to make the grade. Last week, Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill requiring training for school board members in low-performing school districts, reports Sheila Byrd of The Associated Press.

"The members would undergo training geared toward improving learning and promoting effective financial management," Byrd writes. "The training would be provided annually by the Mississippi School Boards Association." The law goes into effect July 1. (Read more)

The Hattiesburg American wrote an editorial saying the law does not go far enough in improving Mississippi schools.
Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, a former teacher and a member of the Senate Education Committee, told the newspaper the training should be required for all school board members because all members "don't exactly understand their responsibilities." The newspaper said legislators should consider a pending bill that calls for superintendents to be fired if their school districts are low-performing two years in a row. (Read more)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Virginia makes a felony of cockfighting, so West Virginia could see more of the illegal fights

Recently, Virginia joined the 36 other states that make cockfighting a felony. Since cockfighting remains a misdemeanor in West Virginia, officials with the Humane Society of the United States warn that the crime could be on the rise there, reports Tom Searls of The Charleston Gazette.

"The national Humane Society rates West Virginia's laws among the most lax, along with neighboring Ohio and Kentucky," Searls writes. John Goodwin, the national Humane Society's manager of animal fighting issues, told Searls that the majority of cockfighting goes on in rural areas — such as the mountainous region along the Virginia-West Virginia border — where locals know what's going on. Thus, there need to major deterrents, Goodwin said.

Two bills dealing with cockfighting failed to gain traction in the West Virginia Legislature, one of which would have made any participation in cockfighting a felony. Ohio and Tennessee have considered strengthening cockfighting laws, but Kentucky has not. (Read more)

This week, a bill making cockfighting a felony passed the Tennessee House Criminal Practice Subcommittee, reports Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "The bill, HB2143, would increase the penalty for active participation in cockfighting from the current Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, to a Class E, punishable by up to a prison term of between one and six years and a fine of $3,000," Humphrey writes. "A spectator at a cockfight can now be punished for a Class C misdemeanor, which has a maximum penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine. The bill would raise the crime of being a spectator to a Class A misdemeanor."

Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director of the Humane Society, told Humphrey that supporters of cockfighting have been lobbying legislators to oppose the change. "We feel like they are cowering to the loud voices of the minority of people in this state who enjoy cockfighting," she said. (Read more)

The Humane Society ranks the states in order of cockfighting laws, with Arkansas, Kentucky, Idaho, Mississippi and Alabama at the bottom.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rural Miss. voters follow statewide track for Obama; primary results are racially polarized

Barack Obama carried rural and suburban voters by about the same margin in winning Mississippi's Democratic presidential primary tonight, according to the exit poll, conducted for news organizations by the National Election Pool. Mississippi is one of the nation's most rural states, 51 percent rural in the 2000 census. The poll identified 64 percent of voters as rural, 33 percent as suburban and only 3 percent as urban.

Mississippi has a larger share of African Americans than any other state, 37 percent, and they accounted for an even larger share of the electorate; the poll sample was divided evenly between blacks and whites. Obama won only 26 percent of the white vote but 90 percent of the black vote. That was the greatest racial division seen in the contest so far, ABC News reported. The Associated Press said Alabama and Clinton's former home state of Arkansas were as polarized as Mississippi, which borders both.

"The exit polls also indicated roughly 40 percent of Mississippi Democratic voters said race was an important factor in their vote, and 90 percent of those voters supported Obama," CNN reports. Nine percent of voters said race was the most important factor in their vote. Among that group, Obama led 55 to 45 percent, within the margin of error for that small sample. Among the 21 percent who said race was one of several factors for them, Obama got 65 percent. Among the two-third of voters who said race was not a factor, Obama got 57 percent, statistically the same as his 60 percent share of the total vote. (Read more)

Asked the importance of gender, 7 percent said it was the most important factor in their vote. CNN did not provide a breakdown of that small sample. Twenty percent said gender was one of several factors; among that group, Obama got 70 percent of the vote. Among the 70 percent who said gender was not important, he won 55-45. The primary was open, and Republicans accounted for 13 percent of the vote; Clinton carried them overwhelmingly, and those who identified themselves as conservatives. She narrowly won among voters with incomes above $75,000. For the poll results, click here.

Perhaps the most interesting results came when voters for one candidate were asked if they would be satisfied if the other candidate were nominated. CNN's John King said a "stunning" 72 percent of Clinton voters said they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee, while 57 percent of Obama voters said they would not be satisfied with Clinton. "You're beginning to see a polarization within the Democratic electorate as the debate between the candidates gets sharper and sharper," King said.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Secrecy series ends with news of possible open-government reforms in Mississippi

We mentioned the beginning of the "Secrecy in Mississippi" series last week, and the collaborative effort of the state's news organizations came to end this weekend after eight days. The series has highlighted the state's shortcomings when it comes to open government and open records, and it seems some improvements could be on way.

The end of the series coincided with the introduction and unanimous passage of an ethics and open-government reform bill in the state Senate this week, reports Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, based in Tupelo. "The legislation would allow citizens who believe a government agency violated the open meetings and open records law to ask the Ethics Commission to intervene instead of pursing costly court action," Harrison writes. "Under current law, a person has to file a lawsuit if he believes a public body has improperly closed a meeting. Under the Senate plan, a person would still have the right to sue if he or she was not happy with the Ethics Commission decision." (Read more)

The bill also would increase penalties for abuse of public office and would require officials' sources of income to be made available online in a searchable database. Those provisions are a good start, but more needs to be done to make meetings and records open, writes the editorial board of The Mississippi Press. "Solutions are varied and can even include mediation of alleged open meetings violations as is included in Senate Bill 2983," the newspaper writes. "But, there is no proposal to increase the fine, now $100, for illegally holding a closed meeting. Public officials should be subject to stiffer penalties if they are found to be holding illegal closed meetings and withholding records." In addition, the newspaper said more records should be put online. (Read more)

"I admit that I was suspicious when senators started talking about beefing up the Ethics Commission, but this is really a good bill," writes David Hampton of The Clarion-Ledger. Hampton, newspaper's editorial director, was interviewed by Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and it's available here.

Another legislator, State Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, has introduced "a bill that would create a Web site that would put all contracts, subcontracts and grants from the state online to enable the public to access the information," reports Ben Piper for the Hattiesburg American. Barker said 29 states have similar sites. (Read more)

The Hattiesburg paper also compiled information on how other states handle open government issues, and that report is available here. To see the full series and copies of Mississippi's laws on open records and open meetings, go here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mississippi weeklies tackle government secrecy

"Secrecy in Mississippi," a collaborative, eight-day series by the state's news organizations to focus attention on the flaws, loopholes and omissions in the state's open-government laws, is now running in weekly newspapers after starting in dailies.

"These articles represent an extraordinary effort by reporters and editors who are concerned that the lack of transparency in Mississippi is harmful to the state's well-being," wrote Stan Tiner, executive editor of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, which was among the papers running an overview of the series Sunday. The paper also ran an editorial saying, "Don't wait until a government door is slammed in your face or you are tossed out of a public meeting or you are denied a public document of vital importance to you to become concerned about these issues. The time to concern yourself is now."

In addition to the overview, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson ran a column by David Hampton on the topic. "Until 1975, there were no laws in Mississippi requiring that government meetings be open to the public," he writes. "Public officials routinely closed meetings at every level of government. Tax money could be spent and public policy decided behind closed doors. Officials decided just how open they wanted to be."

Yesterday's installment examined high legal costs citizens face when they fight for records and challenge closures of meetings. "In Mississippi, a state with a long history of government secrecy, it can be difficult, expensive, time-consuming -- and sometimes all but impossible -- to know what government leaders are up to and what special interests pull their strings," write The Clarion-Ledger's Emily LeCoz and Geoff Pender. "That's because enforcement of the state's Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act falls not on the shoulders of the state but on those of the public itself."

Ink Blots, the blog of the Mississippi Press Association, has plenty of links to stories related to this series, and it is being updated throughout the week. (Read more)

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mississippi newspapers partner for series on lack of openness in state's government agencies

Open meetings and open records laws are only good if followed, and the task of keeping tabs often falls on newspapers. In Mississippi, newspapers have joined forces with The Associated Press and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information to produce a series that investigates the state's open-government laws — both in writing and in practice. The eight-day series, called "Secrecy in Mississippi" began today. (Above is its logo, produced by The Sun Herald of Biloxi)

"Mississippi's Open Meetings and Open Records laws were designed to protect citizens' access to the workings of government, but are rife with exemptions that perpetuate a culture of secrecy," according to a series overview from the Mississippi Press Association. "Private citizens, organizations and media outlets have long pushed for more open government, but the Legislature has largely ignored these appeals. Bills are being filed this year to try to tighten some of the exemptions and to give people a better chance to see the workings of their local and state governments – the governments that taxpayers support with their hard-earned dollars."

Topics in the series include enforcement, campaign finance, crime statistics and investigative records. The series will run in MPA daily member newspapers this week, and it will be available for weekly newspapers starting Feb. 10. (Read more)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Failed beef plant in Mississippi prepares to reopen

For more than three years, a 140,000-square foot facility in Oakland, Miss., has been empty — a reminder of the state's gamble on a meat processor that failed. Houston-based Windsor Quality Food Co., however, has given the facility and the town another chance, reports Lisa Keefe for, a publication for the meatpacking industry.

"Windsor bought the plant last spring," Keefe writes. "It had been built in 2003 by Mississippi Beef Processors, and closed in August 2004, only three months after it opened. The closure cost the state of Mississippi $55 million when the owners defaulted on a state-guaranteed loan."

The new facility will employ 150 people initially, but the number could rise to 400 as more production lines are added. A town of fewer than 1,000, Oakland is about 80 miles south of Memphis. (Read more)