Sec. of State Watson: How Mississippi can get back on track

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This Op-Ed was authored and submitted by Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson.†

COVID-19 has undermined the wellbeing of Mississippi far beyond the scope of public health. Businesses are closing, and, more often than not, their owners and workers can do little to nothing to stem the change in economic tides. The temporary shutdown did more than send workers home for a few months; it has paved the way for a historic economic shift.

The threat of the virus and social distancing efforts are propelling our online infrastructure more rapidly than for which we had prepared. For better or worse, these changes will create and destroy business opportunities. As a matter of fact, we are already seeing some businesses make the decision to close their doors. For them, financial strain, loss of supply, and changes in demand have proven to be overwhelming.

I am hearing from family-owned small businesses, restaurant owners, contractors, and many others about the impact this pandemic has had on their businesses and employees. While state and federal relief programs have been created to serve as a lifeline for our nationís small businesses, I believe it will take more than financial aid to get our state back on track. Mississippians have once again displayed their resilience through these trials, and it is this resilience that will drive us towards innovation.

As Mississippians, we are invested in our communities, and our dedication to one another puts our state in an opportune position to bounce back from these hardships. We already enjoy shopping at local stores and buying local products. Now, we need to combine our enthusiasm for local culture with our devotion to community and support Mississippi like never before. Mississippi businesses create Mississippi jobs, and Mississippi jobs put food on Mississippi tables. As the COVID-19 crisis recedes, so will government relief. Long-term prosperity requires forward-looking investment.

These relief programs combined with support for local businesses are key to getting our state back on track immediately. Just as important, and possibly more so to our long-term economic success, is to tackle the simple, but most impactful, issue of occupational licensing reform. Occupational licensing is a relatively new burden on our workforce. Over the last 60 years, the number of jobs requiring occupational licenses in Mississippi has grown from 4% to almost 20%, and the list is growing at a pace we cannot sustain. Unnecessary and burdensome regulations stifle job creation, hinder small business activity, and negatively impact innovation in our state. According to the Justice Institute, Mississippi loses out on more than 13,000 job-creating opportunities each year due to our licensing laws and regulations. To put this in perspective, we are missing out on the equivalent of opening another Ingalls Shipyard in our state every year.

During my time in the Senate, I consistently supported legislation limiting oppressive regulations on free enterprise, such as the Mississippi Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Act. Throughout my campaign for Secretary of State, I promised to uphold my conservative values and continue fighting for small businesses in our state. Another step in the right direction isRep. Jerry Turnerís HB 1104 allowing the Occupational Licensing Review Commission (OLRC), which is composed of the Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General, to review and reform existing regulations. Thankfully, itís on its way to the Governorís desk. I hope we can use this as an opportunity to create true economic stimulus in the form of cutting burdensome regulations and licensing laws, thus spurring the growth of small businesses and entrepreneurs in our state.

COVID-19 may have set us back a step, but by addressing our current licensing laws and regulations, we can take two steps forward–propelling our state onto the frontline of innovation and job creation.

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