Republicans back governor’s goals, Democrats skeptical

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Lawmakers and other elected state officials sit on the floor of the House chamber as they listen to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant discuss his legislative priorities during his State of the State address Tuesday.

Republicans rallied around Gov. Phil Bryant’s messages in the State of the State Address on Tuesday, but Democrats focused on what issues weren’t addressed.

Bryant touted the state’s recent economic and educational achievements while also noting more work must be done in the area of foster care reform and advocating a new state trooper school.

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said the governor’s speech contained “a lot of positive notes about good things happening in Mississippi” rather than focusing on the negative.

The Gulf Coast senator was enthused by Bryant’s recommendation that the Legislature disperse the majority of the almost $110 million in BP settlement money into a Gulf Coast Restoration Reserve Fund.

“When the time comes to assemble the budget for fiscal year 2019, I still believe the funds should go where the worst damage occurred – our Gulf Coast,” Bryant said.

Watson agreed, adding that while the Gulf Coast sustained damages to beaches and infrastructure, the area suffered economic damage as well. There is more work to be done, he said.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula

“I think the bigger picture, the bigger idea is that if you spend that money on the coast, you make the coast bigger and better, it’s going to generate funds throughout the entire state,” Watson said.

Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said he also appreciated the governor’s suggestion that funds be reserved until worthwhile projects are identified and “potential leveraging of other funds can be thoroughly considered.”

“We do not want to see that money be blown on frivolous projects. We want to make sure they’re used for projects that will provide a return to the general fund and be an investment for the entire state,” DeLano said.

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch focused on the governor’s recommendation that the Legislature only make appropriations totaling 98 percent of revenue projections to help lessen the need for budget cuts if revenue projections are not met. The treasurer indicated that would protect the state’s credit rating.

Lawmakers could go even further to strengthen the state’s fiscal health, Fitch said.

“Two things need to happen. One, we should amend the constitution but, two, we also need some very strong statutory language,” dictating budget specifics, Fitch said.

Legislation has been introduced by Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, to establish a constitutional balanced budget requirement.

Democrats were not as enthusiastic about the governor’s speech.

The House Democratic Caucus pointed to several statistics, including a shrinking tax base and population, pay inequality between men and women and broken infrastructure, as evidence that Mississippi is not doing as well as Bryant described.

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs, said he and other Democrats are concerned about further budget cuts.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs, looks around the House chamber as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant delivers his State of the State address.

“Democrats are concerned that without a plan to generate more revenue there will be further cuts. Our state is in a precarious financial position and essential services that our citizens rely on every day are already in jeopardy,” Stone said.

The Democratic caucus is suggesting several ways to improve the state’s financial situation, including fixing roads and bridges, raising the minimum wage, increased availability of child care and full funding of public schools.

Attorney General Jim Hood, the only statewide official who is a Democrat, followed up on the governor’s recommendation that implementing a state lottery be considered, which could bring close to $100 million of revenue per year to the state. Hood said he wished the governor had said any potential lottery revenue would go towards education, particularly pre-kindergarten.

“I think that’s the best bang for our buck,” Hood said.

He also noted there was no mention of fixing the state’s infrastructure, which was estimated by the Mississippi Economic Council last year to cost around $375 million annually. He also said there was no mention of the federal lawsuit filed against the state for failure to provide integrated, community-based mental health services.

“Mental health is an issue I didn’t really hear him address, which is a vital need and it’s as important to us as fixing our foster care system,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Mississippi in August, saying the state discriminates against adults with mental illness by over relying on “unnecessary institutionalization,” in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court said that people with disabilities have a constitutional right to live in their communities rather than be warehoused in mental institutions. The ruling was supposed to prompt states to move towards expanding community mental-health services and away from institutionalization.

Mississippi did not act quickly enough in making those changes, which prompted the lawsuit.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said that although Bryant lauded an increase in tourism in Mississippi, the state could see even more if the state flag were changed to eliminate the Confederate battle emblem.

“If we really want to attract tourism here, the Legislature should pass a law to change the flag. There wasn’t enough said about the 247 years given by African Americans in this state that built this country with no pay at all,” Jordan said.

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, said she is encouraged by other things she is hearing around the Capitol.

“We’re hearing that there will be bills presented to address the very dangerous condition of our infrastructure. No one wants, and many cannot afford, the extra hours traveling to and from work because a bridge is out,” Williams-Barnes said. “No one wants to send their children off to school in the morning, just praying that there won’t be a wreck caused by a crumbling road.”