Around the state: Sept.-Oct. 2016

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• The Mississippi Department of Education is preparing four “endorsement options” to supplement the high school degrees it grants: career and technical, STEM, academic and distinguished academic. The endorsements will serve as a bonus, says Jean Massey, the department’s executive director in the office of secondary education, preparing each student for work, college without remediation, work/college ready in STEM and scholarship eligibility. The Mississippi Occupational Diploma is not being accepted by a number of institutions and employers, says Dr. Carey M. Wright, the state superintendent of education. They have requested changes in diploma distinctions. The new diploma rollout is expected to begin for incoming freshmen during the 2017-2018 school year.

• The Delta Regional Authority and its federal and state partners announced that they are investing more than $7.2 million into strengthening Mississippi’s workforce, infrastructure, and economy. Delta Regional Authority Federal Chairman Chris Masingill announced in Itta Beena that projects to be funded include a new levee in Natchez, a new Amtrak platform and pavilion in Quitman County, the construction of permanent exhibits at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and improved water infrastructure across the state. “These strategic investments help us accomplish our core mission – create jobs, build communities, and improve the lives of families across Mississippi and the Delta,” Masingill said.

• After more than four years and more than $7 million, the renovation and expansion of the Elvis Birthplace and Museum is complete, the Daily Journal reports. Executive Director Dick Guyton said, “Now it’s time to maintain it.” The third and final phase of the renovation was centered around the lake and surrounding area.

• The State of Mississippi asked two federal judges on Monday to consolidate both lawsuits challenging the way the state cares for mentally ill citizens. In August, the Department of Justice broke off negotiations with the State Department of Mental Health and filed a complaint to force the department to provide more community-based mental health care for mentally ill residents. Six years earlier, in a lawsuit that is still pending, three plaintiffs sued then-governor Haley Barbour, arguing that “children with behavioral and emotional problems face a rigid, facility-based mental health system that both ignores and exacerbates their needs.” In its motion Monday, the state argued that the two cases should be consolidated because they share several issues, including two defendants, the involvement of the federal government, and similar challenges to Mississippi’s mental health laws. “While (one case) involves children and this matter involves adults, there is no legitimate dispute that any alleged needed changes in the State’s care of individuals with mental illness would necessarily involve changes for the care of both children and adults,” the state said in its motion. The decision to consolidate now rests with U.S. District Court Judges Carlton Reeves, who is assigned to the Department of Justice Complaint, and Henry Wingate, who is on Troupe v. Barbour.

• The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby will reopen to the public on Thursday with a ceremony beginning at 10 a.m. on the museum grounds. Gov. Phil Bryant will deliver the keynote address. The museum was closed in February 2015 to expand the facility by approximately 7,500 square feet. The new displays span the War of 1812 through the global war on terrorism. In addition, two halls for Mississippi’s 28 Medal of Honor recipients and other distinguished state veterans are now present. The museum’s World War II gallery is still under construction and will open on Dec. 10.

• The Department of Health has reported two new cases of West Nile virus in the state, bringing the total of infected Mississippians in 2016 to 32, including a Hinds County resident who died of the virus in August. The new reported cases are in Rankin and Sunflower counties. In 2015, the Department of Health, which only reports laboratory-confirmed cases, confirmed 38 cases of West Nile Virus and one death. Symptoms of the virus are usually mild and mimic the flu; many people never realize they are infected. However, less than one percent of patients develop a severe neuroinvasive disease, such as meningitis or encephalitis. West Nile Virus is transmitted by mosquito bite. The Department of Health strongly cautions residents to minimize their risk of mosquito bites by using a DEET-based repellant and wearing long sleeves when outdoors. They also advise people to remove any standing water from their yards.

• A federal judge has overturned a state law prohibiting Medicaid from reimbursing Planned Parenthood for any of the services it provides, claiming it violates the Medicaid statute’s free-choice-of-provider requirement. The ruling follows a similar judgment from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last month, where a panel of three judges ruled that a Louisiana law also prohibiting Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood violated federal law. Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2238 in April, saying on Twitter at the time, “Happy to sign Senate Bill 2238. Taxpayer dollars should not fund abortions.” Members of the Planned Parenthood organization said they were pleased with the judge’s decision. “The courts just confirmed that no politician can tell Mississippians where they can or cannot go for care. We will continue to fight for our patients’ right to access health care at the provider of their choice,” said Ashley B. Coffield, Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region president and CEO.

• The Mississippi State Fair set a new attendance record, with 733,151 passing through the gates. Attendance at the 157th edition of the fair, Oct. 5-16, was 13% higher than 2015’s tally.

• The Department of Health has reported four new cases of West Nile virus in the state, bringing the total of infected Mississippians in 2016 to 30, including a Hinds County resident who died of the virus in August. The new reported cases are in Adams, Attala, Copiah and Marion counties. In 2015, the Department of Health, which reports only laboratory-confirmed cases, confirmed 38 cases of West Nile Virus and one death. Symptoms of the virus are usually mild and mimic the flu; many people never realize they are infected. However, less than one percent of patients develop a severe neuroinvasive disease, such as meningitis or encephalitis. West Nile Virus is transmitted by mosquito bite. The Department of Health strongly cautions residents to minimize their risk of mosquito bites by using a DEET-based repellant and wearing long sleeves when outdoors. They also advise people to remove any standing water from their yards.

• Fuel diversity is an important part of the future of energy, as are global partnerships, says Christopher Smith, the U.S. Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for fossil energy. “It’s important for (climate and) energy security when you don’t have all your eggs in one basket,” Smith told students at Jackson State University on Thursday. “It also ensures that you have multiple pathways to the future. We don’t know what the dance of tomorrow is going to be.” Smith said energy plans likely will include not only coal, oil and natural gas, but also wind, solar, enhanced geothermal, natural gas, coal with carbon capture and sequestration and other ways to make delivering sources of energy safer and more efficient throughout the United States or abroad.

• Mississippi Power Co. announced that its Kemper County plant has reached “first electricity” via a combination of synthesis gas, or syngas, and natural gas. Before the project launches into full-scale commercial operation, the plant must generate electricity from syngas, produced from nearby lignite coal. Then operators must make sure the whole plant is running smoothly. Mississippi Power expects the plant to be placed in service by Nov. 30. The plant, which is running on natural gas, was supposed to go into full operation, running off syngas by May 2014.

• Debra Hendricks Gibbs took the oath of office Friday in the Mississippi House of Representatives chamber to represent District 72. Gibbs was elected Sept. 14  in a special election runoff. She will finish the term of Kimberly Campbell, who stepped down in May to become state director of the AARP. Gibbs, an attorney, previously served on the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission. She also served as an educator and administrator at Jackson State University.

• Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Edwin Glenn Hamilton was formally charged with possession of methamphetamine on Wednesday, The Daily Journal reports. Hamilton, 60, of Maben, was arrested June 16 and indicted by a Clay County grand jury last week for one count of possession of methamphetamine, a Schedule II controlled substance, according to Attorney General Jim Hood. Hamilton, who took a leave of absence following his arrest, was released on a $5,000 bond. If convicted of the charge, he faces up to 8 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

• First-term Mississippi state lawmaker Rep. Kabir Karriem of Columbus, 43, was arrested Tuesday on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence. He was released on his own recognizance and is scheduled for a Columbus Municipal Court appearance on Oct. 27. Karriem, a Democrat, was elected in November 2015 in a House district that is entirely in Lowndes County. He previously served on the Columbus City Council.

• New cases of West Nile virus in the state are continuing into October, with the state’s 2016 total now at 28, the Health Department said. West Nile virus infection is usually mild, with no symptoms or causing only a brief flu-like illness. In some individuals illness can be severe, with long-lasting neurological effects.

• North Mississippi Health Services and United Healthcare have agreed to share research and information to resolve a dispute over payments, the Daily Journal reported. Last week, North Mississippi Health Services announced it was moving to terminate provider agreements with United Healthcare because the insurer had failed to pay them accurately. Research by NMHS shows the problem could go back years. If the two fail to resolve the dispute, United Healthcare patients would be out of network next year when seeking treatment at NMHS. “The Mississippi Department of Insurance has had extensive conversations with both parties and is actively involved in bringing resolution to the issue,” said Bob Williams, director of the state insurance department’s life and health actuarial division.

• Tuesday’s meeting between a legislative working group and members of the board of the Institutes of Higher Learning was cut short over a misunderstanding about specifics to be discussed. Dr. Glenn F. Boyce, state commissioner of higher education, and John Pearce Jr., associate commissioner for finance and administration, sat before Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and select state legislators in the latest in a series of meetings between lawmakers and state agency chiefs examining budgets and expenditures. Tuesday’s focus was to be contractual services at the state’s public 4-year institutions. Boyce and Pearce did not have the information requested during the meeting but have agreed to follow up with legislators at a later date.

• The federal government says Louisville should repay a $25.4 million grant awarded for recovery from an April 2014 tornado that was on the ground 34 miles with wind speeds up to 185 mph. Ten people were killed. State Auditor Stacey Pickering says he is working with local officials to try to minimize the amount of money that must be sent back. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General says the city did not follow federal procurement standards in awarding 12 contracts totaling $23.9 million. The office also says the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid $1.5 million to the city that duplicated other benefits.

• The Nashville-based parent organization for two Jackson charter schools is getting a new leader. After current RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta announced he will step down, the organization’s Board of Directors voted to hire Jon Rybka. Rybka was most recently a Program Officer with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in Austin, Texas.