Lawmakers hit with questions on IP

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 3, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; What is being done to save International Paper’s Natchez mill and attract new industries to the area?

What further tort reform is proposed, and how do local legislators stand on the issue?

Those were two main topics covered by state Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez; Rep. Andrew Ketchings, R-Natchez; and Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez, Monday at the Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast.

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IP announced Jan. 23 that its Natchez mill would close this summer, but the legislators said they’ve talked with federal and state officials to see what can be done to save the mill.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove pledged in a Thursday meeting that he would meet with IP officials to see what can be done.

After all, &uot;the state gave $300 million to Nissan and $60 million to Howard Industries,&uot; West said, and IP’s closing &uot;would have just as much impact on us.&uot;

In addition, U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Third District, plans to meet next Monday in Natchez with local officials about attracting and retaining industries, West said.

Nissan is planning a job fair in Adams County. But how about locating second- or third-tier suppliers for Nissan in Adams County?

At an earlier date, Nissan would not visit the community to explore the possibility of suppliers here unless a supplier contacted them first, West said.

Meanwhile, he added that legislation he has introduced for six years to get the county an Empowerment Zone designation has failed each time.

On the issue of tort reform, while &uot;we’ve made inroads, but we’re only about half to three-quarters of the way to where we need to be,&uot; Ketchings said.

Meanwhile, Insurance Commissioner George Dale is talking to two insurance companies about filling the void left when a Virginia insurance carrier was taken over by state regulators to due to its bad financial condition, Ketchings said.

Meanwhile, West told those present &045; and those listening on local radio stations &045; that he voted against tort reform legislation &uot;because I felt the real issue was not being addressed, which was the availability of insurance for doctors.&uot;

&uot;They (the doctors) told us then that they didn’t want an insurance risk pool, but now they’re saying they need it,&uot; West said.

An insurance committee of the Legislature on Friday voted for a bill to create such a risk pool, but lawmakers are being told that that pool needs to be in place by mid-March, Dearing said.

Dearing also pointed out that he co-authored a banking tort reform bill this year.

Meanwhile, West said he disputes the low ranking that the Business and Industry Political Education Committee gave him on the tort reform issue, calling the ranking of 6 &uot;misleading.&uot;

In response to an audience question, Ketchings said that a bill he sponsored to create a school voucher system would allow a $2,500 voucher for families living in failing school districts.

It would also allow students to switch to other non-failing public schools in the same district, he said.

Lawmakers pointed out that one of their first actions in this regular session was to pass legislation that made education funding 62 percent of the state’s budget. &uot;We made history&uot; with that bill, Dearing said.

Ketchings said he voted against the bill because it uses one-time money to fund a recurring expense.

The possibility of passing a Municipal Option Sales Tax, or MOST, program was also addressed.

West said his bill would actually allow entire counties to vote on sales taxes that would go to fund specific projects and would automatically be repealed when the projects were completed &045; or no longer than seven years.

&uot;As long as the people who would be affected have a chance to vote on it,&uot; Dearing said he didn’t have a problem voting for MOST &045; but he said food should be exempt.

&uot;I’m not interested in taxing Š people on a fixed income,&uot; Ketchings said.