He was finishing up his last semester in college when he began interning for Delbert Hosemann's congressional campaign. Hosemann, who ultimately did not win the race that year, was the then-corporate lawyer for Maris, West and Baker. He told Mask that if he was interested in advertising, he could get him an internship interview at the firm. Mask began his internship in 1999 and never left.
About five years ago, Mask, along with economic and educational leaders and others, formed the Mississippi Brain Drain
Commission. BOOM Jackson sat down with Mask to talk about our shared obsession with reversing brain drain in Mississippi.
Q Tell me about the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission.
I got a group of people together—some of them were clients that I worked with, particularly in the field of education; others were, like, economic leaders, mostly younger folks—and just started talking about ways to incentivize or to reverse the brain drain that was here because it was something that I had a personal interest in because it affected me. If I had not "Forrest Gump"-ed my way into an internship here, just through an association that I had, I probably in all likelihood would've left because I had no idea of the opportunities that exist within Jackson and within a lot of other areas of our state.
That was really a shame, and I didn't think that we are ever going to turn our economic fortunes around, our quality-of-life fortunes around ... in a sustained way until we solve the problem of leaking intellectual capital.
Q Why do you think it is important to focus on an issue like brain drain?
Like I said, I don't think that this state that I have a vested interest in ... (is) going to solve our problems, or the issues that have plagued us, without solving that piece because you can't keep losing your people that have the prerequisites to be your highest-wage earners or your capital creators or your innovators at the clip that we're losing those people and expect to turn around your economic and your financial fortunes.
Q What kinds of things has the commission done?
We have really focused on two things. One is this piece of conceptual legislation that, really, I think is going into ... the third year of some shape, form or fashion of it. ... The second thing that we've focused on that's kind of become its own thing now is a special project that's become Kids Code Mississippi. It started as just an advocacy push to educate people about the opportunities that exist in computer science, and the need to start computer-science education at a young age, like middle school or younger. Through Kids Code, we've held various contests. We've organized our own hack-a-thons, we've helped produce hack-a-thons for other organizations ... and have acted in an advisory capacity to other organizations that are interested in this. Most of what we've focused on has been extracurricular activities not through the school systems, but we have acted kind of as a consultant to the Department of Education and to some other educational bodies. This state, I am very encouraged with what we have done in that area. (The State has) been really aggressive at instituting a pilot program for computer science—it's called CS 4 MS—and we have done that in, as far as government moving a program, what's really been breakneck speed, and that's very encouraging.
I believe it was last summer (that) my co-founder, who is a partner at this firm as well, Randy Lynn, wrote a curriculum for a multi-week camp that we held, and it was for children who lived in federally subsidized housing. We held that once a week over, I think, six weeks throughout the summer. Things like that are what the Kids Code project has been focused on, and that's almost taken on a life of its own.
Q Tell me about the brain-drain bill.
What the brain-drain part of the initiative is focused on now is policy that will hopefully totally reverse the brain drain, and it will be great if we started experiencing brain gain in the state. We've got the opportunity to do that because we have a lot of out-of-state enrollment at our colleges and universities because our out-of-state tuition is extremely competitive. It's a golden opportunity to capitalize on that for sure. ... You've heard the phrase, "If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less, tax it."? I don't see that as a political standpoint. I don't see that as right or left. I see that as an economic principle. That's just the way it is, so our concept legislation that we're proposing for this session essentially subsidizes and incentivizes people that qualify to be in this program to stay in the state.
Q Tell me how it works.
You'd have to qualify for the program, and the way you qualify is there (are) two criteria. One is you have to have graduated from any accredited institution of higher learning anywhere in the world—it doesn't matter. It's not just limited to Mississippi schools—any accredited university or college or school, or whatever it may be, as long as it's an institution of higher learning. ...
The second criteria is you have to establish yourself as a taxpayer in Mississippi, which means essentially you take a job in the state within a year of graduation. At the end of five years from whenever you became a Mississippi taxpayer, if you are still an established Mississippi taxpayer, which means you have a job in the Mississippi, and you pay state income taxes, you're eligible for a one-time, lump-sum refund of the state taxes you have paid over that five-year span.
... If you take your refund, and you use your refund to purchase real estate in the state, either residential (you buy a house) or commercial (you buy a property for a business) then your refund comes back totally tax-free. You get every bit of the state tax you paid in. ...If you are an owner of a business that's incorporated in Mississippi, either an LLC, LLP or you're a shareholder in an Inc., you would get that money back 100 percent tax-free. If you don't meet those two criteria, you still get a refund back. It will be taxed one time. We don't know the rate yet. The bill is being what they call "scored," which is the language they use to say what the impact of it's going to be. That's going to tell us what the rate will be. I suspect it will be somewhere around 10 percent, so you'll still keep 90 percent of your refund money.
That's the advantages that the policy would have for the individual. That's the incentive for them to stay, knowing that if you've been here two or three years, and you want to start looking around, well, I might have $8,000, $10,000, $20,000 coming to me if I stick around for two more years.
It's going to be more valuable, I think, to higher-wage-earning individuals, like engineers, like computer scientists, coders, like medical professionals, so I think that actually those higher-wage earners that will up our per-capita income are going to have even more of a carrot to stick around and receive that refund.
What does the State get out of it, other than the downstream effect of these higher-wage individuals? You're paying in your income tax over the five-year period just like you always would, so there's no immediate hit at all to the treasury. What we would like to see is that any money that's associated with that program, the State takes that money and puts it in an interest-bearing fund. At the end of that period, (when) the person gets their refund, the State keeps the interest that was accrued during that period. If I make it four years and 11 months, and then I move, the State keeps 100 percent, so I have to complete my end of the bargain and stay for a full five years, or else all of that stays in the state treasury.
I don't think there's a lot of downside risk from the state revenue standpoint, especially not immediately, and I think that the multiplier effect of just having more and more and more high-wage individuals in the state is going to have a very quick impact. Those people are going to be spending more. They're going to be buying property. Hopefully, we're incentivizing the right people on buying property in the state, so they'll be paying property taxes. I know that within the course of a few years, it's going to be a huge net gain for the state, and I think we may not even experience a loss at all.
The original problem is brain drain. We're losing our best and brightest, so if you're a resident of Mississippi, you are who we're most concerned about impacting first and foremost, but there's no reason to just limit it to in-state residents. If you've got a doctorate in robotics and you're from Washington state or California or wherever, yes, we would love to have you come work here, absolutely, and you would absolutely qualify for this program.
... When you do the calculations as far as standards of living, we're a very attractive place to live. We've just got to make sure that we attract and retain the right workforce that's going to be competitive now and (in) 50 years.
Q Whatis the next step for the bill?
It will be written into actual legislative language, and then it will be dropped on the (legislative) floor. Either in the House or the Senate, somebody will introduce the bill. We want to have co-sponsors from both parties because I don't see this is as a left or right bill. I see it as extremely bipartisan. It may be its own standalone bill, or it may be part of a larger economic package. We don't know that, yet. It was dropped on the floor, I think in 2015, as its own standalone bill in the House, and it did not make it to a vote that year. I'm actually glad it didn't because (with) the language in that bill, the setup was a little different, and I don't think it was as strong, and I don't think it would have been as impacting as it is in its current form.
Q Is that going to happen in the upcoming 2018 legislative session?
That's what we're shooting for. I know time is rapidly drawing near, but we're optimistic that we'll be able to get it in
For more information about the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission, visit fastforward.ms.