Gov. Phil Bryant urged a leaner, more focused state government while adding his support to efforts to rewrite the state’s education funding formula in his annual State of the State speech Tuesday night.
Bryant touted the state’s recent economic and educational achievements – including several national awards for business and job growth and educational gains – while pointing to room for improvement.
“Tonight I’m reminded of the words of a popular song from 1969: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need,’” Bryant said. “Let us now go about seeing what state government really needs.”
Specific improvements he mentioned:
• Cut the budgets of most state agencies slightly in order to help offset lagging revenue collections experienced in recent months.
• Consider implementing a state lottery, which experts say could bring close to $100 million of revenue per year to the state.
• Create separate savings account for BP oil spill settlement moneys, which will total about $700 million over the course of the next 16 years and delay making decisions on how to begin spending that money until next year. The proposal drew loud cheers from Gulf Coast legislators.
• Modernize the state’s public education formula to send more money to classrooms instead of schools’ central offices.
• Terminate at least 16 boards or commissions that have not met in more than a year, calling these entities “the proverbial low-hanging fruit for improving our governmental system.”
“State government is structured in a way that leaves it woefully fragmented, with many of the various parts operating in silos,” Bryant said.
“Consolidation among agencies, boards and commissions – many of which serve identical functions and duplicate services – may not save a significant amount of money immediately; but would, over time, generate the kind of cost-savings that could strengthen a core function of government, like education or public safety,” he said.
Bryant did not single out specific agencies to be considered for consolidation.
Lawmakers reacted to the speech along party lines.
Lawmakers this week heard from education nonprofit EdBuild, the New Jersey-based firm the Legislature paid to recommend sweeping changes to the way the state pays for public education.
The firm suggested that the state reconsider its commitment to providing 73 percent of the funds for public education. Such a move, if adopted by the Legislature, could force some local communities to face increased property taxes to make up for a shortfall in state support.
Bryant focused several minutes of his speech Tuesday on the need to “modernize” the formula, bashing critics who believe the state’s Republican leadership are purposefully leading the state to failure.
“We are determined to do something no one before us has ever achieved: to make Mississippi’s public education system one of the nation’s finest,” Bryant said. “The rewards are certainly worth the risk of criticism. As risk-takers we may be successful with transformational change in public education; but if we are not, we will try again and again. It is time for all of us to be in the arena.”
Bryant touted some of the achievements students have made in recent years, noting that 90 percent of third grade students passed the reading test required to move on to 4th grade and that 4th grade students set new achievement marks in math and reading.
Bryant also noted that the state graduates 80 percent of high school students, “higher than it has ever been.”
And he noted that the achievements are gaining recognition around the nation.
Bryant reminded those listening that the Education Commission of the States “selected Mississippi for the Frank Newman Award, the Heisman Trophy of Education. The Commission, which is the nation’s premier education organization representing the states, recognized what we have done to make our system of public education the most innovative in America.”
And he pointed to the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) program at the Academy of Innovation at the Vicksburg-Warren School District as an example of education initiatives that lead to employment for all students.
“Such innovation will bring about the real-world improvement in career and college readiness so desperately needed across our state,” he said.
Bryant focused another portion of his speech on crafting the state budget for next year. In November, the governor released his $5.7 billion budget recommendation for next fiscal year – slightly less than the current fiscal year’s budget. Bryant stated that he wants to spend more money on a new public education formula but less money on nearly every other facet of state government.
Under Bryant’s budget proposal, most state agencies would receive 1.8 percent less than this fiscal year. The governor said he wants to pursue privatization in government, including the consolidation of some agencies or departments.
In a bit of policy wonk talk on the budget, Bryant urged the Legislature to stick by the 98% rule that requires 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.
He also urged the Legislature to make a one-time transfer of $57 million to the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which would bring it back to nearly the full statutory amount.
Despite having to order budget cuts numerous times over the past two fiscal years, Bryant noted that the state budget has grown from $5.5 billion his first year in office to $6.26 billion this fiscal year — “approximately 13 percent larger.”
“That’s $730 million more in government spending from state support appropriations than just five years ago,” he said. “That is almost three times the rate of inflation. So any narrative implying draconian cuts in state service would simply be fake news.”
Bryant applauded some economic numbers that he repeats frequently at public events around the state: the state’s lowest unemployment rate since 2004, the addition of 6,000 new jobs from projects reflecting $1.9 billion in private investment in the state.
Bryant applauded the Legislature for considering a Blue Lives matter bill that would impose stricter penalties on those who attack police.
“I appreciate the legislation you have introduced to protect law enforcement and show the nation that here in Mississippi, Blue Lives matter,” he said. He noted that three Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agents were wounded in the past year and Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Special Agent Lee Tartt was killed during a hostage crisis.
In saluting Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, who is retiring this month, Bryant noted that there are 161 fewer troopers than called for in state law.
“I ask you tonight to back the badge of our troopers and put more of them on the road,” he said.
Bryant congratulated the Legislature for taking action to create the Department of Child Protection Services and investing $34 million to improve service to foster children in the state.
“The improvements were sufficient in this first year as to compel the federal court to allow a less restrictive set of requirements and remove Mississippi from the oversight of a court monitor for the first time since 2008,” Bryant said.
And the governor pledged: “I have dedicated my remaining time in office to ensuring our foster children get the care they deserve. It will be my top priority. We cannot and will not fail at this endeavor. Our children will be protected. “
And the governor drew attention to the state’s bicentennial celebration.
“Our Bicentennial is the perfect opportunity to share with the world everything that makes Mississippi the best place in America to live, work and raise a family,” he said. “I hope everyone listening will participate in the events our communities have planned to mark this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.”
“I hope you all embrace the reality that we are allowed this moment in time to join our hands and hearts and reinforce the cherished ties that bind us into statehood,” he said. “Like most nations and states, Mississippi has had trials and tribulations that cannot be forgotten or excused. But, we also have a rich history that should be celebrated by us collectively.”
And he struck an optimistic note about the state, noting improvements in manufacturing, education and new museums in all areas of the state.
“Two hundred years after its founding, the state of the state of Mississippi is better than ever,” Bryant said. “As always, naysayers will find every reason to reinforce a belief that Mississippi will never come together to heal our wounds and achieve greatness. But we know better, because we are doing so every day.”