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What was expected to be a routine vote Wednesday to give two state universities the ability to build affordable student housing escalated into a tense debate over the flying of the Mississippi state flag.
Senate Bill 2509 would give Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi the ability to build tax-exempt dorms. Backers of the legislation sought to send the bill to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where other colleges and universities were expected to ask for the same authority.
Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, used it as an opportunity to introduce an amendment to require any school taking advantage of the tax exempt provision to fly the state flag. All eight state universities decline to fly because it features the controversial Confederate battle emblem.
After debate and some alternate amendments failed, Shirley’s amendment passed by one vote, 57 to 56. A representative asked the bill to be held for further consideration, which could prompt another round of debate on Thursday.
But Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, told the House that the amendment would not remain in the bill when it gets to a joint House-Senate conference committee.
“If anybody thinks this amendment is going to stay in there in conference, the Easter bunny is coming … and the junior gentleman from Madison (County) will vote green the rest of the year,” Smith quipped. He was referring to Rep. Joel Bomgar, who regularly pushes his red button to vote no on legislation instead of the green button to vote yes.
Shirley has unsuccessfully offered similar measures in the past and said that he would continue offering the amendment until it passes.
“We’re going to keep rocking this baby until we get it done,” Shirley said.
Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, offered an alternative amendment that would have required schools to fly either the state flag or the Magnolia Flag. Snowden’s amendment failed.
Several African American Democratic members spoke against Shirley’s proposal. Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the state flag reminds him of a statue that stands in a first floor committee room of the Capitol of white supremacist former Gov. Theodore Bilbo.
“That flag does not make us feel welcome in the state of Mississippi,” said Blackmon, who is African American. “Why would we touch the nerves of so many people just because you believe you can. Flags should unite not divide. We should all feel proud about the flag that represents this state.”
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said he has a high-school age relative who is being recruited by top universities, but will not consider any offers from Mississippi schools because of the perception that Mississippi is hostile to African Americans, a perception that the state flag fuels.
“Look at our millennials. Our future depends on the individuals that are coming behind us,” Bell said. “If we support this we will not be laying foundation for those that come behind — we’ll be laying roadblocks and obstacles.”
The bill ultimately passed 74 to 43.
After the vote, several Democratic lawmakers protested by asking bills to be read aloud, which slowed down business on a key deadline day.
Here is the vote by which the amendment requiring state universities to fly the state flag in order to participate in the housing program:
William Arnold, R-Booneville; Nick Bain, D-Corinth; Mark Baker, R-Brandon; Shane Barnett, R-Waynesboro; Charles Beckett, R-Bruce; Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach; Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia; Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie; Chris Brown, R-Nettleton; Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula; Larry Byrd, R-Petal; Lester Carpenter, R-Burnsville; Gary Chism, R-Columbus; John Corley, R-Lumberton; Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian; Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch; Beckie Currie, R-Brookhaven; Dan Eubanks, R-Walls; Casey Eure, R-Biloxi; Mark Formby, R-Picayune; Robert Foster, R-Love; Andy Gipson, R-Braxton; Jeffrey Guice, R-Ocean Springs; Jeff Hale, R-Nesbit; Greg Haney, R-Gulfport; Joey Hood, R-Ackerman; Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven; Stephen Horne, R-Meridian; Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc; Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg; Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia; Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville; Vince Mangold, R-Jackson; Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat; Doug McLeod, R-Lucedale; Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis; Tom Miles, D-Forest; Sam Mims, R-McComb; Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg; Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown; Karl Oliver, R-Winona; Randall Patterson, R-Biloxi; Bill Pigott, R-Tylertown; Brent Powell, R-Brandon; Margaret Rogers, R-New Albany; Ray Rogers, R-Pearl; Randy Rushing, R-Decatur; Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville; William Shirley, R-Quitman; Gary Staples, R-Laurel; Jody Steverson, R-Ripley; Brad Touchstone, R-Hattiesburg; Mark Tullos, R-Raleigh; Jerry Turner, R-Baldwin; Tom Weathersby, R-Florence; Jason White, R-West; Patricia Willis, R-Diamondhead.
Jeramey Anderson, D-Escatawpa; Willie Bailey, D-Greenville; Earle Banks, D-Jackson; David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis; Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg; Sonia Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport; Manly Barton, R-Moss Point; Chrisopher Bell, D-Jackson; Edward Blackmon, D-Canton; Joel Bomgar, R-Madison; Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica; Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson; Bryant Clark, D-Pickens; Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson; Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia; Bill Denny, R-Jackson; Oscar Denton, D-Vicksburg; Deborah Butler Dixon, D-Raymond; Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond; Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville; Bob Evans, D-Monticello; Michael T. Evans, D-Preston; John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs; Debra Gibbs, D-Jackson; Karl Gibbs, D-West Point; Philip Gunn, R-Clinton; John Hines, D-Greenvile; Stephen Holland, D-Plantersville; Rep. Gregory Holloway, D-Hazlehurst; Kevin Horan, D-Grenada; Robert Huddleston, D-Sumner; Abe Hudson, D-Cleveland; Jay Hughes, D-Oxford; Lataisha Jackson, D-Como; Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez; Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus; Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia; Roun McNeal, R-Leakesville; Carl Mickens, D- Brooksville; America Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson; Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale; Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood; John Read, R-Gautier; Thomas Reynolds, D-Charleston; Rob Roberson, R-Starkville; Omeria Scott, D-Laurel; Jeffrey Smith, R-Columbus; Greg Snowden, R-Meridian; Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni; Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson; Sara Thomas, D-Indianola; Kenneth Walker, D-Carthage; Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg; Cory Wilson, R-Madison; Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson; Charles Young, D-Meridian.
Not Voting (6): Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo; Donnie Bell, R-Fulton; Ashley Henley, R-Southaven; Noah Sanford, R-Collins; Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona; Henry Zuber, R-Ocean Springs.
Absent (3): Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi; John Moore, R-Brandon; David Myers, D-McComb.