Governor Phil Bryant after delivering the State of the State address in the House of Representatives Chamber of the Mississippi State Capitol Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

In his final State of the State address, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant reminded Mississippi of the progress he believes the state has made during his administration while Democrats say the governor picked up the mantle of issues they’ve supported all along.

While Bryant speeches in previous years have seen attacks on the media and criticism of naysayers, this year’s address featured a mostly positive tone from Bryant, who touted gains Mississippi has made in education, health care, recruiting industry and economic and workforce development.

A great deal of Bryant’s 40 minute speech centered on education. The governor thanked teachers for their hard work and lauded the expansion of “school choice” efforts and improved student achievement.

Since Bryant took office, “school choice” movements have cropped up across the state starting with the launch of the first charter schools, a scholarship program for students with special needs to attend private schools and a dyslexia-therapy program. Third graders must now pass the literacy test, known informally as the third-grade gate, in order to move on to the fourth grade.

“There is little doubt that our education system is far better than it has ever been and headed in the right direction,” Bryant said.

“Of all the educational reforms proposed by politicians and all the public posturing by those wanting to be the education champion, none has done more than the teachers,” Bryant said.

Bryant said he supported teacher pay raises, a concept the Legislature is flirting with during the current legislative session.

“Send me a bill to authorize a pay raise for these most critical guardians of Mississippi’s future, and I will sign it.”

Despite the rosy picture, even some allies say the governor missed an opportunity to talk about big challenges facing the state.

Central District Highway Commissioner Dick Hall

Dick Hall, one of the state’s three transportation commissioners, said he was disappointed the governor didn’t go into more detail about infrastructure.

“We don’t even have enough money to maintain what we’ve got, let alone start building things we need to build. We’re far short of the funding we need to have,” said Hall, a Republican, who recently said he would not seek reelection. “I’m gonna hop on this until I walk out a year from now: The answer, in the end, will be the fuel tax. Unfortunately, it’s gonna be too late.”

Bryant continued his upbeat refrain by praising the state’s economy, saying the state is “financially sound and better than we could have ever imagined.”

Bryant boasted of his administration’s focus on saving nearly $350 million in reserve funds and highlighted the current fiscal year’s revenue collections. He slammed his fist on the lectern as he rattled off figures such as the state’s record low unemployment rate, rising median household incomes and an increase in jobs since he took office — all trends happening nationally as well.

“A wise man once said that the best social program is a job,” Bryant said. “The simple dignity of work is transformational, and I have long proposed that a good job for all Mississippians would become a signpost to success. For that reason, we have assisted the private sector in creating more jobs in a shorter period of time than any in our state’s history.”

In a response, Democrats said they are open to working with Republicans to improve the state, but hit on familiar criticisms about the party’s policy actions such as pushing tax cuts that Democrats argue drain much needed revenue from Mississippi.

Despite the governor championing improved revenue collections, House Minority Leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said in the Democratic response: “We will still struggle to fund education and basic services as the enormous tax cuts passed for out-of-state corporations in 2016 begin to suck cash out of the budget this year.”

The idea that health care could be an economic driver for the state has recently become one of Bryant’s pet issues. He praised Tradition, a new medical city under development on the coast, which will include nursing and pharmacy schools and a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic.

But some lawmakers said what was most notable about Bryant’s points on health care was what he didn’t discuss, specifically the potential of expanding Medicaid in Mississippi. In the past month, Mississippi Today reported that Bryant has quietly looked at expanding Medicaid, and several prominent Republicans have publicly said expansion could help the state. But Bryant’s discussion of improving access to care made no mention of Medicaid expansion.

“Democrats aren’t sure what has caused the governor’s election-year epiphany, but we are ready to work in bipartisan fashion to help save our rural hospitals,” Baria said.

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, speaks about the lottery bill during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Friday, August 24, 2018.

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, pointed out that in the last several months four rural hospitals in the state have declared bankruptcy.

“They are the heartbeat of rural communities in the state,” Williams-Barnes said. “And improving access to health care means expanding Medicaid, which means propping up rural hospitals.”

Baria said: “Mississippi Democrats are ready, willing and able to work together with Republicans to move our state forward. … We just need for our colleagues across the aisle to engage with us around our common goal of improving our state for all Mississippians.”

Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, echoed that statement, telling Mississippi Today the governor’s speech highlighted issues Democrats have supported for years.

“I don’t know if he’s backpedaling or coming to the realization of what Democrats have talked about,” Banks said.

“Sounded a lot like he talked about Democratic values we’ve been talking about for seven years when he took over as governor,” Banks said. “Teacher pay raises, roads, bridges, health care, assistance for people in our cities – those are the things that Democrats have been talking about for many, many years.”

Fact check: Gov. Phil Bryant’s 2019 State of the State address

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.