BY BOBBY HARRISON

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Despite some grumbling by its members, the Mississippi House passed by a 117-4 margin Tuesday legislation designed to ensure Cooper Tire keeps its Tupelo plant open.

House Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, told House members the legislation "is a time-sensitive economic development proposal." Watson said it will ensure that 1,200 jobs, at an average salary of $45,000 annually, remain in Tupelo and may entice Cooper to place 40-50 more jobs at the Tupelo site.

The measure entails an incentive package the state offered to Cooper Tire last year when company officials were determining which of its North American plants to close. The company ultimately decided to shut down its Albany, Ga., operation.

Rep. Gary Staples, R-Laurel, asked, "How many more companies around the state are we going to bail out?"

Watson said, "I don't classify this as a bailout. We have an opportunity to keep a manufacturing company in the state or allow it to leave."

Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said, "In these economic times we are doing everything we can to make a difference in this state. This is one of those efforts."

The legislation now goes back to the Senate because the House made minor, technical changes in the bill. The Senate is expected to accept the House changes this week and send the legislation to Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour is expected to sign the legislation since the Mississippi Development Authority developed the incentive package for Cooper.

The bill includes:

- A $7 million grant that will be used to build a city-owned building at Cooper's Tupelo location to allow the company to increase capacity.

- A $6 million no-interest loan to move equipment to the Tupelo plant from the Albany plant.

- Tax breaks of $6 million over a 10-year period for Cooper.

Watson said the bill has provisions that would require Cooper to repay the state should it close the Tupelo plant.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Cooper, which is located in his district, pays above-average wages and has been a good corporate citizen in Northeast Mississippi.

"I think this is a bellwether bill not only for Northeast Mississippi," he said, "but for the entire state."

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

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