Mississippi spent $1.5M on Weight Watchers for teachers

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers were giving Weight Watchers $1.5 million for a program that never appeared in any education funding bills or state contracts, just one example of how state legislators have been funneling education funding to favored vendors.

The Clarion Ledger reports that since 2016, top lawmakers have mandated that the Mississippi Department of Education spend up to $45 million on specific programs. Of that, nearly $10 million was earmarked not just for programs but for 13 select vendors.

Most of the vendors were represented by three lobbying firms. Since 2016, eight education companies and nonprofit groups have received $9 million cumulatively. They've spent nearly $800,000 on lobbying.

In at least four cases, key lawmakers received campaign contributions from vendors who received those earmarks. Disclosure reports also show companies paid for lawmakers' meals while seeking state money.

Weight Watchers, for example, collected about $300,000 per year between 2011 and 2016. The Clarion Ledger reports the organization paid $276,000 to lobbyist Beth Clay, one of the most prominent contract lobbyists in Mississippi, between 2010 and 2016.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, said as much as $20 million a year in education earmarks were once directed through "budget notes," letters written by top lawmakers directing an agency how to spend money after a bill is passed. That practice can conceal spending from public view.

Tollison said budget notes stopped in the 2016 legislative session when his committee began listing out each earmark in the education appropriations bill.

This process is how Weight Watchers got nearly $1.5 million in education money, without a competitive bid process.

Requirements came from a "Legislative Mandate," a Department of Education document shows. Spokesman Pete Smith said the department could find no correspondence regarding the mandate, but stressed that the department doesn't spend money without legislative direction.

The Weight Watchers program allowed teachers and school staff to sign up for 15-week courses at subsidized rates. Instead of paying $150, employees paid $60 and the state paid the remaining $90. Rather than pay Weight Watchers per employee, the Legislature gave the company $300,000 most years. That's enough money for 3,333 Weight Watchers vouchers. But the Weight Watchers program never had that many participants, peaking at 3,232 the first year and then falling. That means nearly $600,000 of the $1.5 million went directly to Weight Watchers without the company providing a service.

When asked if Weight Watchers should have received $1.5 million, Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke said lawmakers killed it because they heard it wasn't effective.

"That program probably would have been more appropriate going through the Department of Health," Clarke said.

Weight Watchers declined to comment.

Overall, the earmarks make it hard to determine if the state is getting the best deal or even using vendors with a proven record. Only one of the 13 vendors went through a competitive contract process with the Department of Education before receiving money. Nine vendors have received earmarks of at least $100,000, an amount that usually would trigger a state agency bid process.

Jumpstart ACT CEO Sha Walker says his hometown representative, Republican Becky Currie of Brookhaven, was a key player in helping his company get funding. The company helps students prepare for college entrance exams at 15 schools statewide and is budgeted to get $250,000 through 2020.

Currie sits on the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. Two years ago, the legislative watchdog committee examined allegations of improper spending at the Department of Education.

After the report's release, Currie told the Clarion Ledger that the agency's contracting practices did not "pass the smell test." But Currie bristled at questions about whether requiring MDE to fund Jumpstart allowed the company to sidestep the bid process.

"I would never promote something I didn't think was good," she said. "Come down and meet the algebra teacher and see what they're doing before you want to make it political or whatever you're trying to do."

Several companies told the Clarion Ledger that even without bidding, they're confident the state is getting the best deal.

Jeff Maddox is the CEO of Sight Savers America. Mississippi pays another Alabama-based vendor called Vision Research Corporation to provide eye screenings to every kindergartner. Sight Savers' follows up with families after exams, coordinating visits with a local optometrist.

Since 2016, the nonprofit has received $1.45 million from the state.

Maddox said he's willing to go through a competitive bidding, if that's how "Mississippi decides to do it." But he doubts another provider would be able to top what Sight Savers offers.

When the Clarion Ledger pointed out that the discretionary funding isn't subject to competition but rather the discretion of the Legislature, Maddox paused before responding:

"That's the reason for having a lobbyist."


Information from: The Clarion Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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