Governor Phil Bryant, in his State of the State address to the Mississippi Legislature Tuesday evening, said Mississippi’s educational system is “better than it has ever been before” and that unemployment is at its lowest level since 1979.
Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford delivered the Democratic Response to Bryant’s speech. He called on the state’s leaders to put an end to standardized testing and exit exams in the public schools and to invest in state-guaranteed loans to help “Main Street” businesses expand instead of cutting taxes for large foreign corporations that donate to politicians’ coffers.
“I realize that, to many of us here tonight, and to those watching and listening, there seem to be two Mississippis occupying the same time and space,” Bryant said. “The proverbial critics would have you believe that one is a declining state whose people are suffering mightily. They search for problems as if there is a reward for finding them … Fortunately, the other Mississippi is filled with progress. It is inhabited by caring, hard-working people of all races and ages who strive valiantly every day to make this wonderful state a better place to live and raise children.”
Noting President Ronald Reagan’s quote, “The best social program is a job,” Bryant said the state has added more than 60,000 jobs and “billions of dollars of foreign and domestic investment in Mississippi industry.” As an example, he pointed to 660 new jobs created by Milwaukee Tool in Jackson, Greenwood and Olive Branch.
On the subject of Mississippi’s schools, Bryant said, “Our educational system, though far from perfect, is clearly better than it has ever been before. For the first time in Mississippi’s history, more than 90 percent of our third-graders have passed their reading exam, and our high school graduate rate has risen above 80 percent. More than $100 million has been directed to teacher pay raises, we ended the election of local superintendents, and dyslexia identification and response all became a reality. Charter schools, early learning and school choice for special-needs children all exist today because of the difficult decisions made by many of you here tonight.”
He called on the State Legislature to “expand school choice for certain categories of children, offering special-needs scholarships to even more students. I continue to believe parents should have the freedom to use their tax dollars to send their child to the school of their choice, not one decided by the government.”
On the topic of health care, Bryant said the state is on its way to adding 1,000 new physicians by 2025, thanks to the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s new medical school. “The medical profession as an economic driver has become a reality in Mississippi. Physicians today are responsible for over 51,000 jobs and have a total economic output of over $8 billion annually.”
The governor also said the state continues to lag behind the rest of the nation both in education and health care and that more needs to be done in those and other areas.
To meet industry’s demand for an educated and skilled workforce, Bryant said, “We have targeted certain industries and emphasized training for these needs. For example, we have created a furniture academy in northeast Mississippi, and two coding academies have started in Jackson and Columbus.”
Bryant also called for the creation of the Mississippi Works Scholarship Fund to “provide more opportunity for community college students who qualify for targeted workforce training.”
In the Democratic Response to Bryant’s speech, Oxford attorney Jay Hughes, serving his first term in the State House of Representatives, said the governor was downplaying the state’s continuing problems in public education, low-paying jobs, poverty and health care.
“The state of the state is ‘same old same old,’” Hughes said. “I love my Mississippi, but the simple facts are that we are still last in education; last in mental health and health care access; first in poverty; and first in the brain drain of our young graduates.”
“If we’re number one in problems,” he added, “then we ought to be number one in solutions. Unfortunately, the policies that impact our quality of life have merely gone unchanged and underfunded. Simply ignoring a problem is not a solution.”
Hughes proposed six “real solutions” to the state’s problems, including allocating the “same basic resources” equally to all of the state’s public schools rather than “one school district having new computers and robotics machines and the school district next door having calculators and popsicle sticks.”
He said the schools are “testing students to death,” noting, “Testing is not teaching. It is nothing but profits for testing corporations and campaign contributions for politicians.”
Hughes also called on the state’s leaders to “quit playing games” with education funding. “It doesn’t matter what the legislators name a new formula if they are not going to fund it every single year. Stop the standardized testing and stop the exit exams. Let our students take the ACTs taxpayers are already paying for. Let the teachers have freedom to teach, just like they do at the charter schools that big campaign donors love so dearly.”
On the subject of jobs, Hughes said, “Part-time minimum wage jobs without benefits do not lift anyone out of poverty. Imagine if, instead of hundreds of millions in tax cuts to foreign corporations that are already here, we gave state-guaranteed expansion loans to Mississippi Main Street companies like Wamble Machine Shop or McCurdy Construction. The jobs those companies create are real and local jobs.”
To keep college graduates in Mississippi, Hughes proposed offering “Main Street” companies subsidies to “cover the health insurance for each Mississippi graduate they hire and keep employed. Or imagine if we were to repay the student loans each year to Mississippi college graduates that go back to work in the Mississippi town where they graduated high school.”
Hughes also called on leaders to improve the state’s approach to treating mental illness and decried what he called “the tax shift to our local communities” from the state level “so politicians in Jackson can claim, ‘We shrank government.’”
He suggested that the state should return 18.5 percent of sales taxes collected in Mississippi’s counties back to the counties for road-and-bridge infrastructure and return to the counties “one-half of the home insurance premium tax for firefighting service improvement so everyone gets lower home insurance rates.”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. Email him at email@example.com.