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Miss. gov signs bills he calls business-friendly

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said several bills he signed Monday could help the state’s business climate, but opponents believe the changes could hurt workers or drain revenue from state government.

Bryant, a Republican, was surrounded by lawmakers and lobbyists during a news conference in the Woolfolk state office building, where he signed four bills that will become law July 1. They are:

— Senate Bill 2576, which makes several changes that manufacturers and other business groups sought in the workers’ compensation system.

— Senate Bill 2934, which provides larger corporate income-tax credits for businesses that pay the inventory tax.

— House Bill 1537, which provides tax incentives for companies that create new jobs in health care fields such as medical research or distribution of medical supplies.

— Senate Bill 2792, which allows high school students to enroll in job-training programs at community colleges while they finish working on their high school diploma. The new law is aimed at helping students who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out of high school.

Critics say the changes to the workers’ compensation system could make life more difficult for employees injured on the job or for survivors of employees killed at work.

“It will give … a boost to this environment in Mississippi where companies will say, again, that is the most job-friendly environment in America,” Bryant said.

Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said the new law will bring balance to a workers’ comp system that he believes has been tilted to favor workers. He praised provisions that will allow for drug and alcohol testing after someone is hurt or killed on the job.

The new law says no compensation will be owed to a worker who is found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including the improper use of legal prescription drugs, when an on-the-job injury occurs. Current law does not specifically mention drugs or alcohol but says no compensation is owed to the worker “if the intoxication of the employee was the proximate cause of the injury.”

“That’s not only for the safety of the individual who was hurt but also for those who are around that individual that could have life-endangering situations if that wasn’t dealt with in a responsible way,” Moon said Monday.

The new law also will allow a partial reduction in payments to any worker who is injured on the job but had pre-existing conditions such as a bad back.

The House Democratic leader, Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, said the workers’ comp changes tile the system toward employers and will hurt workers.

“When you talk about workers in the state, it’s not just who you think about that may be on a factory line,” Moak said after the final version of the bill passed April 30. “It’s policemen, it’s firemen, it’s secretaries, it’s people who are inside the office workplace and people who are outside the office workplace, like truck drivers and general laborers and state employees.”

Mississippi is one of the few states with an inventory tax, and the tax is paid to local governments. Lawmakers tried for several years to find a way to give financial benefits to businesses that pay the inventory tax without taking money away from cities and counties.

Mississippi Development Authority director Jim Barksdale said Monday that when Mississippi is competing against other states for jobs, the competitors can point to Mississippi’s inventory tax as a negative.

“It’s one of those things that’s always there because not many states charge an inventory tax,” Barksdale said.

The new law will increase the corporate income-tax credit to businesses that pay the inventory tax. Since 1997, the state has allowed any business that pays the inventory tax to claim up to a $5,000 credit on their corporate income tax. Under the new law, the credit will rise to $10,000 in 2014 and $15,000 in 2015. In 2016, the law will make the credit equal to state income tax or inventory tax, whichever is smaller. That means a company paying $20,000 in inventory taxes and $21,000 in income tax would get a tax credit of $20,000.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said during the legislative session that the bill is “absurd” because no one knows exactly how much revenue the state will lose by allowing corporations that pay the inventory tax to take larger tax credits.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who supports the financial breaks for those paying the inventory tax, said Mississippi collects about $450 million a year in corporate income taxes.

“We’re moving to continue to reduce the burden placed on Mississippi businesses because we want them to take that money that they would’ve otherwise placing on paying taxes and actually invest in their business and hire new employees,” Reeves said Monday.