This is one in a series of stories produced by students taking a state government reporting class at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. The class is led by Mississippi Today co-editor Fred Anklam Jr. and Meek school journalism professor LaReeca Rucker.
JACKSON — With a new legislative session underway, the Mississippi Legislature had a busy first week of policy discussions for the new year mainly concerning education and infrastructure funding.
The week began with legislators gaveling in Tuesday morning and continued with the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) Capital Day on Thursday. Business leaders from around the state came to Jackson to influence state legislators on pivotal economic policy decisions regarding Mississippi businesses.
The most significant conversation taking place revolved around the relationship between the MEC and the state legislature, with business leaders seeking to ensure that the leaders in Jackson are doing their best to fulfill Mississippi businesses’ needs in economic improvement.
“Workforce development is the key issue for a robust economy,” MEC Chair William Yates said. Yates is also the CEO/President of the major Mississippi construction company W.G. Yates & Sons.
Yates was among featured speakers at the event including Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, along with a panel of several regional business leaders from groups such as the Gulf Coast Business Council and the Golden Triangle Development Link.
In his speech to the business leaders, Hosemann reinforced the need of developing an educated workforce with a series of presentation slides displaying results from a survey his office recently conducted with Mississippi business leaders. He reassured MEC members that that workforce is being created under current leadership, through increased technical skills training and community support.
In highlighting recent improvements, Bryant brought the conversation of workforce development back to education, a policy area that usually makes up a great amount of the state’s budget and focus.
“We have the lowest unemployment rate and the highest graduation rate in Mississippi history,” Bryant said.
Since Bryant has been in office as governor, the high school graduation rate has increased from 73 percent in 2012 to 82 percent now, just one percentage point behind the national average.
Bryant’s not the only one who thinks everything ties back to education.
As he enters his fifteenth year in public office, Reeves spoke this week on his strong stance regarding improvements for public education.
In an exclusive interview with the small University of Mississippi Capitol Press Corps reporting class, Reeves mentioned he is an advocate for new legislative initiatives such as school choice, charter schools and appointed superintendents.
“We have tried to move our conversation away from one of inputs to one of outcomes,” Reeves said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s how well those kids are performing that’s going to decide how well they do in life, but also how strong our economy is.”
Reeves is currently pushing for the reallocation of the current education funding formula, better known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Last year the state legislature proposed ideas regarding this issue but never got around to bringing legislation to the floor before the session ended.
Behind education, a large portion of this week’s debate focused on infrastructure, openly one of the MEC’s greatest concerns as mentioned by Yates, as well as other constituents.
“95.4 percent of members said that they were willing to spend more money to improve infrastructure,” Yates said.
He went on to say that infrastructure will continue to be a collaborative effort, mentioning that MEC will work together with the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Lieutenant Governor. Later that day the House passed Bill 354, which creates a special fund in the state treasury to assist municipalities in paying costs associated with the repair, maintenance, and reconstruction of roads, streets, and bridges.