MEC’s Blake Wilson, Scott Waller dish on roads, taxes and flag

Published 9:59 am Monday, February 27, 2017

By R.L. Nave

Mississippi Today

Blake Wilson, who’s retiring June 16 as chief executive officer of the Mississippi Economic Council, says if you want know what the future could hold for Mississippi’s economy, look to his home state of Delaware.

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In 1980, Delaware starting cutting the state’s personal income tax rate, which topped out at almost 20 percent. The tax cuts helped make living in the state more attractive, he said.

That, combined with other economic-development activities, helped spur the economy and, over time, create nearly 70,000 jobs, said Wilson, who for a time worked for the Delaware chamber of commerce.

In recent years, the Mississippi Legislature has moved to cut taxes on individuals as well as businesses by eliminating the inventory and franchise taxes, all of which the MEC has supported.

Even though those cuts have drawn fire from critics who say Mississippi can’t afford to give up any more revenue, Wilson said these cuts combined with “chasing the bacon” — pursuing major economic development projects — will help lure businesses that hire workers and pay good wages.

He sees momentum-building opportunity in one area in particular.

“We’ve got to build on what we’ve got. We’ve got this tremendous automotive thing going. Twenty years ago this wasn’t here at all in any way shape or form,” Wilson said.

Since Wilson has been at the helm of MEC, Nissan and Toyota have opened plants in the state, along with Yokohama Tire and truck-builder Paccar. Earlier this year, officials broke ground on the future site of a Continental Tire factory in Hinds County.

“This was a state of low skill, low wage manufacturing and when this state got serious about going after an automotive plant, it was a game changer in this state,” Wilson said. “It was a change in attitude and a change in approach and a change in opportunity for our people.”

Waller takes over

Now, MEC and Wilson are turning the task of helping state and local business and government leaders build on that success to Scott Waller, the organization’s chief operating officer and executive vice president.

Waller will become interim CEO on May 1 in anticipation of Wilson’s retirement. Waller says he’s looking forward to the challenge of helping the organization through the transition and helping foster an environment where businesses can prosper.

Business leaders who have worked with Wilson for the past two decades credit him with several significant improvements to the 10,000 member organization, including focusing on diversity — in all senses of the word.

“When Blake took over, our organization was not diverse. To me one of the best things Blake has done for the Mississippi Economic Council is make it a diverse group of people leading the organization,” said  Robin Robinson, director of organization development and corporate communications at Laurel-based Sanderson Farms Inc.

“He’s tried to make our leadership more closely mirror the state,” said Roginson, MEC’s current chairwoman. “We have more African Americans involved, more women involved.”

In addition, Robinson points to the creation of MEC’s “road shows,” which serve to diversify the feedback the organization receives by giving members outside of Jackson a more direct voice in the organization and in the Legislature.

As the voice of the business community, MEC plays a key role in policy making.

Education and infrastructure

Both Wilson and Wallace point to education and infrastructure as two of MEC’s top priorities. In 2016, the organization published a study showing that the state needs at least $375 million for infrastructure improvement. The Mississippi Department of Transportation in a recent proposal says the state needs $400 million.

Waller says the condition of the state’s roads and bridges are an economic issue.

“When trucks have to detour around bad bridges, it adds to the cost of producing the goods. We want to make sure we’re having the conversation (about infrastructure) because it is too important not to focus on the economic side,” Waller said.

In recent weeks, MEC has advocated for a “multi-lane” approach raised by House Speaker Philip Gunn, which could include taxing internet sales to provide immediate revenue for road repairs while commissioning an independent study to examine various proposals to determine the best overall approach. The House has approved an internet sales tax levy, while the Senate is icy on the idea.

Wilson adds that the Trump Administration’s Department of Transportation could provide a boost on infrastructure. Waller said he believes that an infrastructure repair program could create as many as 7,000 jobs.

“We’ve been encouraging the governor to invite (Transportation) Secretary (Elaine) Chao. Anytime you get a cabinet secretary to come to your state, that helps put attention on the issue,” Wilson said. “I think just having Secretary Chao come here will help continue raise the awareness that, hey, this isn’t just a big issue in Mississippi. It’s an issue all over the country.”

Because jobs require trained and skilled workers, MEC also provides scholarships, which has long been a focus of the group.

Reuben Anderson, the first African American state supreme court justice and a former MEC chairman, said Wilson rarely backs away from challenges, particularly in education, one of the state’s biggest areas of need.

“Blake and MEC understand that until we have a highly educated workforce we will continue to have enormous challenges,” said Anderson, now a partner at PhelpsDunbar.

Wilson touts the Mississippi Scholars program, which pairs business leaders with eighth graders who complete a rigorous curriculum, and Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program to encourage students to pursue study in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Over the years, MEC has awarded approximately $22 million in scholarships to students and teachers in Mississippi.

Educating a workforce and building new roads could be futile if businesses find repugnant the state’s most visible symbol, the state flag, Wilson said. Paving the way for a new flag could be Wilson’s swan song.

State flag hurts

In October, MEC unveiled a banner to commemorate Mississippi’s bicentennial. The banner is available in different sizes, which MEC gives to governments and businesses at no cost. So far, about 800 have been distributed. Wilson said he hopes to have given out 1,000 by the MEC’s annual meeting in April.

Wilson sees the state flag as a branding problem. He has said that it’s not MEC’s intent to replace the state’s flag, which bears a controversial Confederate emblem.

However, Wilson said he believes the bicentennial banner, which features the state seal, could help Mississippians warm up to the idea of new state symbol someday.

“We just want it flying. Our concept is if we can get enough people looking at a new design, people are going to get comfortable with it,” Wilson said. “It may not be the design people ultimately gravitate to. We’re O.K. with that.”