Fact check: Mississippi Democratic legislative response to State of the State address, with context

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, speaks about the Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, speaks about Senate Bill No. 2001 during a special session at the Capitol in Jackson Tuesday, August 28, 2018.

Rep. Robert Johnson, of Natchez and a Democratic leader in the Legislature, countered Gov. Tate Reeves’ State of the State address with a dense, numbers heavy response that focused on criminal justice, jobs and the economy. As with Reeves, our reporters fact checked the Democrats’ facts and figures and contextualized several of their claims.

“While we understand that people who commit crimes are subject to punishment, the State has a responsibility to maintain requisite levels of safety and humane conditions for the people incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, and we have not done that, and we must do a better job.”

Fact check: At least 12 prisoners have died since Dec. 29, nine of them incarcerated at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The majority apparent homicides and suicides, according to the state corrections department and media reports.

Many others have been reported to be injured in outbursts of violence in recent weeks; others have escaped. Widespread accounts of dangerous and unsanitary conditions inside state prisons in the new year have led to calls by prisoners’ advocates to shut down Parchman, a lawsuit backed by music mogul Jay-Z and Memphis-born artist Yo Gotti, and reports of a federal civil rights investigation into the state’s correctional system.

“There are over 19,000 people incarcerated in Mississippi Prisons. Of that number, 6,000 of those people are eligible for parole, are non-violent offenders serving less than 5 years or are juveniles charged as adults … We should work for the early release of those 2,400 people who are serving time for simple drug possession or are nonviolent offenders within 2-3 years of release … These actions could reduce the prison population by close to 5,000 people, thereby giving our underfunded Department of Corrections a more manageable population and saving the state over $200 million by the year 2025.”

Fact check: While Mississippi’s prison population dropped below 19,000 after the state implemented a set of reforms and began paroling more people in 2014, the number of people incarcerated has risen again over 19,000 as of last month. A Mississippi Department of Corrections report in December noted that addressing parole and probation revocations, as well as parole eligibility, “are essential to containing population growth.”

In an interview, Rep. Johnson told Mississippi Today that he drew on conviction data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, as well as data from advocacy groups, to arrive at a savings estimate of over $200 million. Legislative watchdog PEER reported in 2019 that the cost per inmate per day in a model facility was $53.72; the cost of incarcerating one person for a year under that calculation is more than $19,000.

“Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Mississippi’s millennial population dropped by 35,013 people from 2010-2016.  Mississippi is the only state in the nation losing millennials this quickly.”

Fact check: Despite efforts from officials to downplay the trend, Mississippi lost more of its millennials — about the equivalent of Tupelo’s population between 2010 and 2016 — than any state in the country, Census data shows.

“In 2019 Mississippi had the next-to-the-highest unemployment rate in the country. We have one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country and the highest rate of poverty.”

Fact check: With a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in December, Mississippi ranked ahead of only Alaska, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mississippi had the lowest per capita personal income in 2018 at $37,834 and the second highest rate of poverty at 19 percent from 2017-2018.

“According to the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Mississippi was next-to-last in our region and 42nd in the country. Our GDP percentage growth was only 1.0 percent while Alabama was twice ours at 2%, and Tennessee was three times higher at 3%. We have to do better, and we can.”

Fact check: In 2018, Mississippi ranked 47th for gross domestic product growth of 1 percent from 2017-2018, according to the annual report released last May by U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, compared to 2 percent in Alabama and 3 percent in Tennessee.

The most comprehensive measure of the overall economy, the state’s GDP has not caught up to where it was in 2008, before the recession hit, when adjusting for inflation.

“Instead of bragging on the tax breaks that we have given to large out-of-state corporation at a cost of over $500 million dollars, let’s start investing in Mississippi businesses, small and large.”

Fact check: From 2012 to 2017, Reeves spearheaded 51 tax cuts or breaks for corporations and individuals, totaling at least $577 million.

How much have tax cuts cost Mississippi? $577M since 2012

“We have a $400 million a year infrastructure maintenance need in a system where we have not increased our funding formula in 25 years.”

MDOT official: Latest roads plan relies on ‘unstable’ funding source

Fact check: Even if the department received $350 million to $400 million more per year, the amount Commissioner Dick Hall said in 2018 was needed just to its maintain the state’s roads and bridges, it would still take years to fix the department’s backlog of highway needs.

“Expansion would provide health coverage for over 200,000 working Mississippians. An expansion would pour over $8 billion dollars into our state’s economy, creating over 8,000 more well-paying healthcare jobs, and would help keep more of our hospitals open.”

Fact check: Analyses suggest 100,000 working Mississippians would be eligible for health care under Medicaid expansion. There are currently 100,000 people in the “coverage gap” who would likely be eligible for coverage with expansion.

Bobby Harrison, Adam Ganucheau and Erica Hensley contributed to this article.