The Speaker’s Commission on Public Policy held a half-day summit on the phenomena of brain drain in Mississippi.

The commission, organized by House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) in 2018, put on the event with panelists from the state’s universities, entrepreneurs and some from the economic development realm along with legislators. 

The goal was to find ways to keep young, college-educated Mississippians in state and lure other college graduates to the Magnolia State.

Like with a previous summit on human trafficking, Gunn said his goal is for the discussion to provide a framework for legislation in the upcoming session in January.

“Brain drain is something that’s been talked about a lot and I’m don’t know if I understand all of the facets of that and that’s what this day is about,” Gunn said. “It’s for us to not only understand the issues, but come forward with solutions.”

Bill Rayburn is the CEO of mTrade, a Mississippi-based company that has built a proprietary loan acquisition system that brings together data and risk analysis in one portal for mortgage transactions. The company employs 200 workers in three locations in Oxford, Tupelo and New York.

He said the state, as evidenced by a scorecard by Economic Modeling that ranked counties by their ability to attract talented workers, is not doing a good job of not only retaining talented graduates, but luring ones from out of state.

Lafayette County was the only one of the state’s smaller counties to be ranked in the top 100 nationally in the scorecard. Only large county, Madison, was ranked in the top 200.

Rayburn said the state could focus on generating entrepreneurship in agriculture technology and that the state needs a strategic economic plan that is focused, actionable, time dependent and measurable. He also said that improving the state as an incubator of entrepreneurship in the new, knowledge-based economy could be done with private funds, but would do so faster with an infusion of taxpayer dollars.

One thing proposed during a roundtable session that the state needs to change its policies of providing generous incentives to manufacturers to bring industry to the state. 

“What we see from an economic development standpoint, the days of chasing smokestacks are coming to an abrupt end,” said Ashley Edwards, the president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “I think most folks in our profession realize that. The numbers of those projects are few and far between. We can’t run a 1995-centric economic development strategy for an economy that no longer exists.”

There was more criticism of the top-down mentality when it comes to economic development in Mississippi. 

While these policies helped land carmakers such as Nissan and Toyoto and tiremakers Continental and Yokohama, there have been some missteps such as the KiOR biofuels plant in Columbus (now defunct and sold for scrap), a pair of defunct solar panel manufacturing plants (Twin Creeks and Stion) and an electric car builder (Greentech Automotive) where taxpayers lost money on their “investments.”

From 2012 to 2017, taxpayers have spent $678 million in just MDA grants alone from 2012 to 2017, or about $19,765 per job.

“Our problem is we don’t have the capital,” said Jeffrey Rupp, the director of outreach and corporate engagement at Mississippi State University’s College of Business. “We spend $600 million on a tire plant, which is great and we need those jobs, but we’re turning out 100 new entrepreneurs per year and with one half of one percent of that, we could really do a lot more.”

State Rep. Trey Lamar (R-Senatobia) touted his tax credit plan to keep college graduates in the state that he says he’ll bring back this year. Lamar introduced the legislation in the past two sessions, but it died in the Senate both times after passing the House.

House Bill 816— also known as the Mississippi Educational Talent Recruitment Act — would’ve provide recent graduates (within two years) from a four-year university or a post-graduate program such as medical school who live and work in Mississippi a rebate equal to all or a portion of the amount of their state income tax liability.