In some ways, the biggest headline from Gov. Phil Bryant’s State of the State address Tuesday was, well, headlines.
Early in the speech, Bryant took aim at what he characterized as too many negative headlines from the news media, but it seemed that these very headlines were heavy on the minds of the lawmakers and other top officials who attended the address.
Among them was fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who said through a statement after the speech concluded: “We have a lot of good news happening in Mississippi that doesn’t always stay in the headlines, and I appreciate Gov. Bryant for shining a light on our accomplishments and job growth.”
Reeves, echoing key points from Bryant’s seventh state of the state address, noted that state unemployment is at a record low and “we’re seeing job creation around the state and, most importantly, we’re seeing gains in the classroom through the hard work of our students and teachers.”
Attorney General Jim Hood, whom many politicos want to see face Reeves in a 2019 gubernatorial race, panned Bryant’s speech.
“Everybody stood up when he talked about education, but how are we going to fund this thing? How do you make those things happen? You’ve got to get the economy going, which is working people swinging a hammer. Expansion of Medicaid, those kind of things would really help. He didn’t talk much at all about how to fund these things. He did a great job of delivering what he could about the bright spots of our economy,” Hood said.
Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, said she hopes that the governor’s appeal Tuesday to equality for all Mississippians is a signal that a gender pay equity bill might have momentum this year. Williams-Barnes along with her colleagues Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, have sponsored pay equity bills in the past.
“Many women are heads of household in our state and in order for us to ensure our state grows a healthy economy, we must make sure that our women are paid just as much as our men,” Williams-Barnes said.
Another issue that seems to have wide bipartisan support, but so far has not made headway, is a roads bill. The governor didn’t tread there in his speech.
“The governor can’t cover everything in a 20 minute speech. But we’ve had ongoing discussions with him about roads and bridges. That’s an issue the House has made a priority. We passed some bills on that last week, and we’re going to continue to come forward with ideas,” Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, told reporters.
Dick Hall, chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, said he was disappointed the governor failed to mention infrastructure
“We have bridges out there that were designed for 50 years that have been there for 90 years on the federal highways. We’re at the point now, soon, not another three or four years. … It’s not only a safety issue, it’ll cost you four times the money to correct it later. The least expensive thing to do is to do something now,” Hall said.
It was the first time that new Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, was present to hear the governor address a joint session of the Legislature.
Taylor, who replaced retired Rep. Tyrone Ellis, had qualms about Bryant’s comments about education issues that have been in the news a lot lately, including a possible rewrite of the public school funding formula and the possibility of expanding so-called education scholarship accounts.
“I have a different opinion on school choice and vouchers,” Taylor said. “I believe in public education.”
Taylor’s colleague, Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, agreed.
“Public education is the great equalizer and it’s already underfunded. If we keep pulling funds from public school systems then in the long run we’re all going to suffer. Because everyone knows, he said it in his speech, that an educated workforce helps with economic development. And there’s only so many private schools in the state,” Sykes said.
Two of Mississippi’s top cops were also in the chamber when Bryant talked about the work of combating the opioid crisis, which has been the focus of numerous states around the nation.
“I believe the momentum (to tackle the opioid epidemic) is still there. We’ve tried to take a very directed and narrow approach with the Legislature and we have some very targeted legislation that I believe is going to be very successful for increasing penalties,” said Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics director John Dowdy.
Although Bryant again called for funding for a state trooper school and endorsed moving the headquarters for the Department of Public Safety from Jackson to Rankin County, the governor did not mention the need for increased funding for the state crime lab, whose woes were the subject of a Mississippi Today report.
“We’re in the initial stages of that but we’re getting real positive feedback from leadership. It’s early in the session but we’ve expressed our needs for the department,” said Marshall Fisher, the director of the Department of Public Safety. “None of what (the department) is asking for is icing on any cake. It’s all legitimate requests. To me our biggest issue is, of course, the crime lab and that funding. To me that’s the top of our list.” direc
Perhaps the most noticeable omission from Bryant’s speech was any mention of the controversial state flag, which brandishes a Confederate battle emblem. Bryant has said voters should decide whether the keep or change the flag through a statewide referendum.
However, in touting the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Bryant said, “There was no effort to conceal the transgressions of the past. The horror of slavery, the indecency of Jim Crow and the dark days of segregation are laid bare, for all the world to see. But it all lies in a museum — put away, we hope to never be witnessed again.”
Advocates for a new flag have often said that it should be relegated to a museum. Rep. Williams-Barnes noted that Bryant did not mention the flag but did point out that he used language so similar to those of current flag opponents.
“We’ll see,” she said.