Mississippi Today journalists Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender recap events from the recently completed Neshoba County Fair and address other issues facing the state, ranging from medical marijuana to teacher pay raises to Critical Race Theory.

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Read a transcript of the episode below.

Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. 

Bobby Harrison: Hello, I’m Bobby Harrison political reporter with Mississippi Today. Welcome to The Other Side podcast.

I’m here with my colleague, Geoff Pender, and we’re going to cover a lot of topics today, focusing primarily on the Neshoba County Fair. Geoff, how you doing? 

Geoff Pender: Hey, Bobby. 

Bobby Harrison: Well, we got the fair back after  last year, where it was canceled because of COVID. It came back this year with political speakings. And of course this year as  political speakings were going on, it was going on against the backdrop of rising COVID cases.

So that was in the back of a lot of people’s minds. But what did you think of the speeches this year? 

Geoff Pender: Yeah. You know, nothing earth shattering that I saw or heard. You know, we’re in a, I guess in the off season, so to speak. So a lot of times they’re you know, not quite the fire and brimstone speeches you see during  campaign years, but a few news nuggets.

I guess one of the biggest things we saw came from Governor Reeves’ speech. He broke a little news. Tell us about that. 

READ MORE: If Gunn is going to challenge Reeves for governor, it didn’t show at Neshoba

Bobby Harrison: Well, he during the 2019 gubernatorial campaign, he and Jim Hood, his democratic opponent, Jim Hood came out early on with a teacher pay raise plan that was substantial, and late in the campaign Reeves introduced  his own plan which was a $4,300 raise.

And since that campaign he’s done really, not much, at least some people believe he hadn’t done enough to try to push that race through. There was a thousand dollars pay raise passed this past session, but he was not, you know, most people would argue he was not in the forefront of getting that pay raise passed.

Geoff Pender:  But  a lot of people pointed out last year or this year actually that he didn’t include a teacher pay raise in his budget recommendation at all. 

Bobby Harrison: That’s right.  He did not. He included a bunch of stuff. I mean, he got down into the weeds in some of the stuff he proposed, but the teacher pay raise was not in his budget recommendation. Yet  the legislature passed it during the session, and he signed into law.

And, you know, during the fair speech last week, he proposed a $1,300 pay raise for the upcoming 2022 session in a thousand dollars each year after that for two years to get up to his 4,300 to, I guess, meet his commitment he made during the campaign.  Some people would argue that, you know, we’re at the point now with the way revenues are coming in— you wrote about that while I was out on a little vacation, the way revenues are coming in right now.

With the surplus the state has, maybe the state should provide a bigger pay raise for teachers than what Reeves what is proposing. So we’ll see what the legislature as a whole thinks. 

Geoff Pender: Yeah. To that point, we’re seeing year over year, double digit, like 15% revenue growth, nine hundred million and change. 

Bobby Harrison: More than the previous year.

Geoff Pender: Yeah, year over year, not just over estimates.  The state budget is is actually pretty flush going into next year. 

Bobby Harrison: Of course, everybody, all the politicians at the fair, were excited to take credit or at least tap that  large surplus. And it’s funny, they were tapping that large surplus by the same time, cursing the federal government and cursing you know the federal government wasted money and spending money, but most most economists if they were being truthful would argue that surplus in a large part was caused by the massive amount of federal money that has been put into this state during the pandemic. So it’s kind of ironic to hear politicians complain about the federal government yet  tap that big surplus and say they were  responsible for it, but yet most people would argue that at least a large part of that surplus was caused by the federal government and a large amount of money that they put into the state during both the Trump administration and the Biden administration.

Geoff Pender: Sure. One thing everyone anticipates or expects or looks for at the Neshoba County Fair political stump speeches are political fireworks and everything. You know, we really didn’t see much of that this week, did we? 

Bobby Harrison: No, I don’t think so. You know, you’ve written about the speaker, you know, considering run for governor against Tate in the Republican primary in 2023.

And I think that’s a legitimate possibility and you know, it was all set up at the fair. The speaker spoke right before the governor. 

Geoff Pender: There was some anticipation of that maybe big kind of a harbinger or even kickoff or a soft launch of that contest. But I don’t think we really  saw that as the saying goes, listening to their speech there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them on most policy issues. And they each took  what could be called maybe a mild jab, subtle,  subtle mild jab, each other. I think Reeves reiterated his opposition to Gunn’s income tax sales tax swap. He pretty strongly out of hand said that he’s not for that. Gunn took a kind of, again, mild jab at Reeves over the supplemental unemployment.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. He’s taking credit, right? 

Geoff Pender: Gunn said that, ‘Yeah,  we oppose that. And as soon as the House wrote the governor a strong letter, he did away with that supplemental.’ I don’t think Reeves has viewed it that way or ever acquiesced that he did  it because Gunn wrote him a terse letter.

Bobby Harrison:  Late at night when he’s thinking about things that really has to make him  mad that Gunn takes credit for that, just knowing Tate Reeves and how his mind operates. That really has to bother him. 

Geoff Pender: I do not know, but like I said,  that was probably about the extent of the jabs there and  nobody that I heard this season really shucked the corn or came out with the fire and brimstone speeches like maybe we’ve heard in the past. I believe Michael Ted Evans might have provided a little entertainment at the fair as he typically does.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. State house member from the Neshoba County area. 

Geoff Pender:  Right, right. One thing  that didn’t get talked about a lot, but that’s still kind of the premier political issue of the summer— in fact had barely got addressed in pretty much most of the top leaders’ speeches is the ballot initiative and  medical marijuana initiative issue. That  really didn’t get brought up much, did it?

Bobby Harrison:  No. And of course, just for background, the Supreme Court, as probably everybody listening to this podcast knows, but just for background, the Supreme Court overturned the medical marijuana initiative that was passed in November and in doing so they invalidated the entire initiative process.

So just about all legislative and leaders and then the governor have said in the past that their intent is to fix that and to pass a medical marijuana law and to fix the ballot initiative so that Mississippians can take advantage of that again, to bypass the legislature and place issues on the ballot.

And you’re right. I don’t think, I believe, Gunn or Reeves addressed it at all in their speeches. I may be wrong.

Geoff Pender: I think that’s correct. 

Bobby Harrison: Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, who spoke the day before the two headliners, if you will, based on the fact that they may oppose each other in a gubernatorial election, Lieutenant Governor Hosemann, who most people believe is going to run for reelection, did say in his speech— he didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but he did say in his speech that  he believed that the legislature would address that and fix those two issues in the coming months, but he didn’t say anything. You know, a lot of people want to fix both those, at least one of them in a special session. And there’s people working to be able to do that in the special session before January when the regular session begins.

But he didn’t say anything about a special session. He just kind of committed to the legislature addressing both of those issues. 

Geoff Pender: Right, right. And then I guess the week before the Senate had held its final medical marijuana hearing. And at that point,  Kevin Blackwell—

Bobby Harrison:  He’s kind of in the forefront on this. 

Geoff Pender: On the Senate side, he’s in the forefront. Representative Lee Yancey has been leading the charge in the House on the medical marijuana issue.  Both felt like we could see a special session I think they both said mid August was perhaps doable. They plan to, and from what I heard have been meeting this week, I guess, trying to to figure out particulars and see if they can reach a compromise.

But I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot of, a lot of it both ways. And I think Speaker Gunn at some point this week, maybe after his speech made it sound doubtful that there is a clear compromise. So I don’t know, a summer special session still appears to be iffy. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Yeah. And of course the governor has said, and I think most people agree with him, at least most legislators agree with him, that he does not want to call a special session. And on these issues, well, it’s not clear. He wants to call a special session on fixing the ballot initiative. But he doesn’t want to call a special session on passing the medical marijuana bill until there’s agreement between the House and the Senate so that they won’t be so they won’t get down there— 

Geoff Pender: and sit there and stare at each other for two weeks. 

Bobby Harrison: Because as we said the devil’s in the detail on both of these issues. I mean, everybody seems to agree that, at least most people will agree that based on the vote, that there should be a medical marijuana law in the state of Mississippi. And also most people agree that the ballot initiative should be brought back. But in what shape, form and fashion, I mean, especially on medical marijuana. You know, there’s all sorts of, as you’ve written about, there’s all sorts of issues.

How strict is the regulation going to be? Is it going to be closer to a recreational marijuana like they have in Oklahoma? Is it going to be a more restrictive medical marijuana law, like they have in Utah 

Geoff Pender: or Alabama? I mean,  pick your comparison state. Arkansas is fairly restrictive.

Bobby Harrison: And the initiative that passed in November was not very restrictive  at all. It was pretty wide open. 

Geoff Pender:  A lot of people have compared that to Oklahoma, which you know, we’ve seen Oklahoma has a lot of marijuana dispensaries, in the thousands. One in 10 people have a card and as one of their legislators, told our legislators in a hearing, one in 10 people have a medical marijuana card and they estimate that each of those cards is used by another two or three people.

So yeah, that’s been the debate. You know, how restrictive it’s going to be. I don’t know. You got a lot of people who support initiative 65 that are not going to be happy if it is probably on the restrictive side. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, these people say that Initiative 65, the  medical marijuana initiative passed by such a wide margin, that all the legislature should do is come in and essentially ratify that with a few changes.

So we’ll see. I mean, I don’t think that’s going to happen. 

Geoff Pender: No, no. Particularly, I mean, you know, follow the money is one of the main rules in politics. 

Bobby Harrison: What do you mean by that? 

Geoff Pender: I mean,  Initiative 65, basically didn’t really allow for standard taxation of medical marijuana, and I feel like you can rest assured whatever the legislature comes up with will have some sort of taxation structure that goes into the general fund.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Well, you know, to add on to that, Initiative 65 did not give the legislature the authority to tax.

Geoff Pender:  Right. Right.

Bobby Harrison:  And curse the legislature if you want but they are elected by the people and the constitution gives them the authority to tax. And as  somebody who got all his knowledge from ninth grade civics, I kinda thought that’s the way it was supposed to work, that the legislature had the power to tax and no power to purse string. 

Geoff Pender: Well, if you don’t remember in civics, they also probably spoke to the constitution trumping any kind of law or anything as well. 

Bobby Harrison: Of course the Supreme Court said in this particular case, the constitution didn’t change.

Geoff Pender: Right. Right. 

Bobby Harrison: So it kind of goes around in circles.

Geoff Pender: Sorry, we’re still faced, and we’ve talked in this podcast at length about it, we’re still faced with with a lot of uncertainty over what you know is one of the biggest issues to come down the pike in awhile. I don’t know. I don’t know if I would handicap a  special session at this point, and certainly a mid August one is starting to look a little doubtful or or whatever, but we’ll see. Things can sometimes turn on a dime if  Senator Blackwell and Representative Yancey announce that peace has broken out and Speaker and Lieutenant Governor agree to that. I mean things can move pretty quickly, I would think. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Yeah. Hey, Geoff, going back to the fair for a few minutes and the speeches. One thing as you said, that wasn’t a dime worth of difference on between the speaker and the governor on a lot of issues.

Of course, you know, you touched on one of those issues where there was a little bit of differences. The speaker has his tax plan that passed the house this past session that eliminates the income tax, and I’ll say stop revenue loss by increasing the sales tax. And  the governor just wants to eliminate the income tax over a period of years, which would take away about a third of the state’s general fund revenue.

And  a couple of things struck me about that. One, as you said, the governor said he would not agree to a tax swap if the sales tax was increased, but the second thing was the speaker, as you reported, as has been going across the state touting his plan.

Geoff Pender:  Right. 

Bobby Harrison: He touched on it at his fair speech, but he really didn’t spend much time on it.

Geoff Pender: Right, right. Yeah. Given he’s described this as the the most important and biggest proposal he’s ever worked on as a lawmaker, and you’re right. He was a fairly down into his speech when he touched on it. And nothing like we’ve heard from him recently. Much of his speech sounded like a 1950 civic textbook warning against the evils of socialism. 

Bobby Harrison: He spent a lot of time on socialism. 

Geoff Pender: He didn’t give a very strong sell of the tax plan in his  Neshoba speech. Maybe he figured that wasn’t the right format for that. But yeah, he has been traveling the state, but yeah, he didn’t  come out too strongly on that, which was kind of surprising.

 But I think it’s safe to say that both Governor Reeves and Speaker Gunn spent a lot of time throwing out so-called red meat issues that were receptive to the conservative fair audience and to conservative Mississippians in general.

 I don’t know if you heard Bobby, but both don’t like Critical Race Theory. 

Bobby Harrison: I got an inkling of that.

Geoff Pender: Did you, did you get that?  That was a main tenant of both their speeches, and they both vowed that that they’re gonna  stop it. I guess we don’t know that it’s going on here, but nevertheless, they’re going to nip it in the bud as Barney Fife would say.

Bobby Harrison:   Governor Reeves restated his support for his, what was it called? Patriotic—

Geoff Pender:  Yeah, patriotic education fund I believe.

Bobby Harrison:  Which he  proposed in his budget last year when  he did not propose a teacher pay raise. And , he talked about that again, and wanted to do that so that patriotic history can be taught in our schools. And, you know, I’m kinda confused about what Critical Race Theory is.

I mean, I think that, you know, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s just making sure that people understand that this country has made mistakes and has grown from those mistakes. And there’s still areas to grow in terms of race and other things. And I, you know, I thought that’s kind of what Critical Race Theory was or what’s being taught in the schools.

I don’t know what, like I said, Critical Race Theory is, but I thought that’s what’s being taught in schools. It’s kind of hard to argue that those things aren’t true, that this country has made some mistakes through the years, and hopefully grown through those mistakes.

Geoff Pender:  It’s been a big issue nationwide.

And on the national level, we’ve seen a lot of a lot of folks in opposition to it feel like it’s  going beyond what you’re talking about. And that it’s actually,    well, as the speaker and governor put it, feel like it’s crossing the line into actually bringing racism into the classroom.

So, again, that’s a huge national debate at this point, it’s been really unclear, but it would appear it’s not happening here. 

Bobby Harrison: Well, , you know, I’m not sure. I just would argue that they argue that it’s bringing racism into the classroom. You know, a counter argument might be that you shouldn’t stick your head in the sand and pretend that racism doesn’t exist. 

Geoff Pender: Which we saw over many decades, certainly through the Jim Crow era or whatever. I mean,  there were certainly issues with what was being taught, particularly in the deep south, but anyway, regardless, it would appear that there’s going to be a prohibition forthcoming from the 2022 legislature on this. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I think that’s the safe bet.

Geoff Pender:  Right.

Bobby Harrison: There may be a special  session on that before there’s special session on medical marijuana. And before we go, just another issue that’s out there: legislative redistricting. You know, they’re going to have to redraw the districts for 174 House and Senate seats and the four U.S. congressional seats. 

Geoff Pender: Wait, do we not have five?

Bobby Harrison: No. 

Geoff Pender: Bad joke. 

Bobby Harrison: The way we were losing population we’re fortunate to have four, but  that process kind of officially kicks off to a large extent this week. I think it’s Thursday. The first of nine public hearings across the state is going to be held  to allow people to provide input on what they think the House and Senate districts should look like.

And early in the 2022 sessions, they’re going  to tackle congressional redistricting, and then later, I guess they’ll do the  state House and Senate redistricting. You know, we’re talking about here in August about a special session, but they may need that special session just to get some issues out of the way because 2022 is shaping up to be a real busy session. 

Geoff Pender: Yeah, redistricting typically is like kicking a hornet’s nest, is it not? 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah.

Geoff Pender: Among the legislators. 

Bobby Harrison: And I actually had a little experience with that earlier this month, but that’s another  story that we’ll talk about another day. Geoff, anything else we need to talk about?

Geoff Pender: I think we covered most of the bases, Bobby. 

Bobby Harrison: I appreciate it.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.