Mississippi tourism officials seek additional $5M to expand advertising and marketing efforts

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi tourism officials are requesting more public money to promote the state in big media markets such as Atlanta and Chicago, hoping the investment will lure travelers to play golf, visit civil-rights landmarks or hear authentic blues music close to its roots.

State tourism director Malcolm White told legislative budget writers Wednesday that Mississippi spends much less than any other Southeastern state on advertising its own attractions.

"We feel like Mississippi has an amazing and great story to tell. And, simply put, we are getting lost in the crowd," White said.

Mississippi spent $3 million on tourism promotion during the 2014 budget year, which ended June 30. That compares to Florida's spending of $58 million, Alabama's $22 million and Louisiana's $11 million.

Mississippi Development Authority is requesting an additional $5.1 million of taxpayer money for tourism advertising and marketing during the 2016 budget year, which begins next July 1.

That amount would allow the state to advertise in Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and parts of Texas and Florida, White said. The state tourism office currently is spending $359,000 for TV advertising in Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Birmingham, Alabama.

"We don't currently advertise in Texas or Atlanta because we simply cannot afford to," White said.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is holding public hearings this week to start planning for fiscal 2016, and MDA is one of several state agencies requesting additional money. The House and Senate will adopt a final spending plan by early April, if they stay on schedule.

The state Supreme Court, public defenders' office, office of capital post-conviction counsel and Commission on Judicial Performance each requested more money Wednesday.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said Supreme Court staff attorneys are paid less than attorneys who work for the Legislature or the attorney general's office. He is requesting money for raises. About 20 percent of the court's staff attorneys leave for other jobs each year, Waller said.

The chief justice also requested $90,000 to pay two guards who could work at the main entrance of the decade-old Supreme Court building. The entrance has not been used because of tight budgets, Waller said. Instead, court employees and visitors use a side entrance.

"Mr. Speaker, we want to open our front door," Waller told House Speaker Philip Gunn, the chairman of the Budget Committee.

Leslie Lee, director of the public defenders' office, is requesting an additional $42,105, about a 1 percent increase. The office is funded partly by fines people pay for speeding tickets, but Lee said that revenue is lower than expected, possibly because people can't afford to pay tickets.

Louwlynn Williams, director of the office of capital post-conviction counsel, is requesting an additional $459,204, which would be a 35 percent increase. She said the office is working on 22 death penalty cases with four attorneys, one investigator and three other staff members.

"Our staffing level is well below that that is required by the American Bar Association for the handling of death penalty cases," Williams said.

Darlene Ballard, director of the Commission on Judicial Performance, said the commission is saving money by meeting every second month rather than every month. She also said the commission has a state vehicle that has been driven more than 180,000 miles and needs repairs. The commission is requesting an additional $81,651, a 15.8 percent increase.

"We'll certainly consider it," Gunn told Ballard.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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