Gov. Phil Bryant pushed the Legislature to put the state flag issue on a statewide ballot in 2018.
Bryant, who has consistently said he believes Mississippians should choose whether to change the state flag, also said Wednesday at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob that he supports a legislative proposal from Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, that would let Mississippi voters choose whether to raise the state’s gasoline tax to provide more funding for roads and bridges.
“I’ve always been a fan of direct democracy,” Bryant told reporters after speaking to the state’s top business leaders at the conference. “Let the people of the state of Mississippi speak with one voice on each of those important issues (state flag and gas tax).”
The state flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, has been sharply criticized by economic leaders for more than a decade. The Mississippi Economic Council led the charge to change the flag in 2001, but Mississippi voters voted nearly 2 to 1 to keep the current design.
Back on the conference floor, the notion of changing the state flag was pitched several times by longtime political pundits Andy Taggart and Jere Nash, garnering extended rounds of applause.
“We are celebrating 200 years of our state today but thankfully we’re also celebrating the failure of the Confederacy,” Nash said during a panel discussion about the bicentennial, which will be celebrated in December.
Each statewide elected official spoke to the state’s top business leaders Wednesday, focusing mostly on workforce development and education. Leaders have emphasized public-private partnerships in recent years in efforts to train Mississippians to fill vacant jobs and to attract new corporations to the state.
Mississippi Economic Council leaders at the conference announced a $125,000 donation to two of the council’s workforce training programs. The donation was made by Cooperative Energy and Origis Energy.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, zoned in on the importance of workforce development, and delved into legislative leaders’ work to develop a new public education funding formula. He said the formula is still being tweaked and will be addressed again in the 2018 legislative session.
“Now is not the time to disengage,” said Gunn. “We are eager to work with you, side-by-side, to create that skilled, trained workforce that will result in a better, more prosperous Mississippi.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves focused in on the state’s educational achievements, including the high marks on third grade reading tests and pre-kindergarten education programs.
Attorney General Jim Hood bashed the Legislature for not funding initiatives last session to improve roads and bridges. He pitched a state lottery, which he said could provide up to $160 million in revenue per year to be set aside for public education.
Cindy Hyde-Smith, the state’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce, said her agency is preparing to break ground on a new $30 million Trademart at the fairgrounds and touted the role of agriculture in Mississippi’s economy.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann boasted that his office has automated and streamlined to make it easier to start a business in the state. Hosemann, whose name has been floated as potential candidate for lieutenant governor, then pivoted to education.
“In Mississippi, we’re going to have pre-K education. We’ll have adequate, accessible health-care in Mississippi. Our students will have adequate funds to go to school. We’ll provide equal educational opportunities for (autistic) children and special needs children who deserve to live the same way that you grew up,” he told the crowd.
Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who has campaigned for equal pay for women and men, said the gender pay gap is an economic liability for Mississippi.
Fitch asked the state economist to conduct a study on the pay gap in Mississippi in 2016, which concluded that the gender pay gap in Mississippi is “approximately 27 percent,” compared to almost 19 percent nationally. Economist Sondra Collins said after adjusting for education, experience, and industry, the Mississippi figure drops to about 18 percent.
“We need to say women are valued and we need equal pay in our state,” Fitch said at the Hob Nob.
Mike Chaney, the state’s insurance commissioner, invoked a bit of Halloween spirit while combining the themes of workforce development and infrastructure.
Borrowing jokes from a candy wrapper, Chaney posited: “What kind of streets do zombies like? Dead ends. Well, our streets and highways are about to be dead ends strictly only for zombies if we don’t do something about trying to fix (them).”
Chaney — who also touted Mississippians’ lowest in the nation health insurance premiums in his speech — said that infrastructure is vital to workforce development because people need safe roads to get to and from work and businesses need them to ship and receive raw materials. He added that bad streets can cause automobile damage that hits Mississippi insurance customers in the pocketbook.
“If we don’t fix the streets, even these autonomous driving vehicles will refuse to drive on our streets in Mississippi,” Chaney said.