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.
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, 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.”