The Mississippi House of Representatives may consider a bill forcing more oversight on how the state pays for advertising in 2009. The state spent more than $14 million on newspaper, radio and television advertising in 2006, but some House members say the state is funding partisan radio.
Of the $14.3 million that the state paid out in 2006, $1.2 million of that went to TeleSouth Broadcasting Company, which owns multiple stations across the state that carry the SuperTalk Mississippi radio format—the state's leading conservative talk radio.
Supertalk is almost exclusively conservative, carrying shows like the Paul Gallo Show and the JT & Dave Show. It also runs national slanted punditry such as The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly and The Savage Nation, featuring homophobe Michael Savage. The same company offers little airtime for progressive views.
Former Rep. Jamie Franks, of Mooreville, said TeleSouth affiliates regularly target Democrats in popular elections.
"Supertalk and Paul Gallo and JT & Dave and all that pounded me into the ground every single day during the lieutenant governor elections. They've basically used these advertising dollars to make TeleSouth Communications a tool of Gov. Haley Barbour and the Republican Party," Franks said.
Franks said talk radio gunned for him because he "threatened their cash cow" in 2006, submitting legislation demanding advertising agencies or vendors account for money the state allotted to them for advertising. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House in 2006, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, killed the bill.
Gordon did not return calls.
Franks claimed state agencies were steering an unhealthy portion of money to inadequate markets.
"I would assume that if you're out here advertising for Medicaid benefits or for mothers of dependent children, the audience of SuperTalk—which usually advocates for cutting Medicaid—is probably not the place you should be advertising," Franks said.
A Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) revealed that TeleSouth dodged the state Personal Service Contract Review Board's competitive bid requirements in getting the alleged misdirected money. An October 2007 PEER report showed that TeleSouth won status as a sole-source provider strictly because Mississippi Department of Human Services Executive Director Don Taylor—appointed by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour—designated the company as "the only company that can provide these needed services to the Department."
PEER learned that the board minutes do not indicate that the board actually required MDHS to show proof of TeleSouth's sole-source classification.
"The board simply relied on the assertions of the Department of Human Services and its own staff to recognize TeleSouth Communications as a sole-source provider," the report stated.
During fiscal year 2006, at least six other state entities used TeleSouth as a sole-source provider for broadcast services, making the company the fifth-highest paid advertising vendor to the state.
"None of the six entities," according to the PEER report, "provided evidence that they exercised due diligence in seeking other potential vendors before designating TeleSouth Communications as a sole-source provider."
TeleSouth Communications owner Steve Davenport backed Franks' opponent Phil Bryant during the election, even going so far as to introduce Bryant at his election-night victory party last November.
Davenport did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press for comment.
TeleSouth affiliates continue to act as a state-funded arm of the Republican Party, Democrats say. House Speaker Billy McCoy is another Democrat who suffered almost daily beatings on SuperTalk as recently as this January. Hosts from the JT & Dave Show spent the days leading up to the election of House Speaker describing McCoy (referred to on the show as "the worm farmer") as too liberal for Mississippi. Hosts called upon voters to contact their legislators and pressure them to vote against McCoy as speaker.
The speaker, after squeaking by the House election by only two votes, said he had little reason to oppose a vendor sunshine bill this year.
"I think it might be time to address that," McCoy said last week.
State budget issues may provide Democrats a good argument for the scrutiny.
House members say the state doesn't have the money to throw around this year.
"The thing is, we don't need to keep paying this money when we're already paying for public television and public radio," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.