Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chairwoman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, center, gives an outline of the group's 2023 legislative agenda during a press conference at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, January 11, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday presented its 2023 agenda, saying lawmakers should focus on helping “everyday Mississippians,” with health care, education, justice and equity, tackling government corruption and providing basic necessities such as clean drinking water.

“These are common-sense ideas,” said Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chairwoman of the caucus. “… We want to assist in the passage of legislation that improves the quality of life for everyday Mississippians.”

There are 51 Black lawmakers in the 174-member Mississippi Legislature, which is controlled by a white, Republican supermajority.

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“We simply do not have the numbers to impact legislation like we would like, but that does not mean we are not working,” said Ford, who noted the group’s agenda was drafted in part from town-hall meetings with communities across the state.

The 2023 caucus agenda includes:

Health care: With Mississippi ranking worst or near-worst in nearly every health category or study, the caucus reiterated its support for expansion of Medicaid to help provide health coverage for the working poor.

“The (legislative leadership) has refused to call that policy up on the floor in the Senate and House for a vote or debate on that important policy,” Ford said. “… With our hospitals facing closure or partial closure, now is the time to act.”

Education: The caucus proposes full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. This funding formula, set in law, is supposed to provide schools statewide with equitable funding to cover basic education needs. But lawmakers have rarely funded the program even though it is law, typically shorting it by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The caucus also said that in recent meetings with the Mississippi State Department of Education and parents, it discovered many parents and students do not know about services the agency offers, such as 24-hour tutoring, and wants to direct the agency to better disseminate information.

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Infrastructure: The caucus agenda says “clean drinking water and high-speed internet are necessities that should be enjoyed by every Mississippian,” and that “the digital divide must be closed.” While the GOP legislative leadership has said it is reluctant to provide more money to the City of Jackson to address its water crisis because it is receiving large amounts of federal money, Ford said the caucus plans to push for more state help.

“People should have clean drinking water,” Ford said. “This is 2023, and that is not something we should have to argue or debate.”

Election reform: The caucus supports removing barriers to voting, and notes “Mississippi was ground zero for instituting the voting rights we have access to today.” The caucus supports early voting and wants to change Mississippi’s Jim Crow era restrictions on restoring the voting rights of convicted felons who have served their time.

Restoring ballot initiative: The caucus supports restoring Mississippians’ right to place issues on the ballot for popular vote. This initiative process was shot down in 2021 by a state Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana. Numerous legislative leaders have vowed to restore the process, but have failed to do so after arguing over details.

Economic justice and racial equity: The caucus said numerous studies and reports have shown racial and other inequity in state spending and numerous other areas that should be addressed. The caucus supports child care tax credits and tax rebates for families with children, increasing the minimum wage and laws that combat discrimination in hiring, banking and finance and other areas. The caucus agenda calls for passage of “Crown Act” legislation enacted in other states that would forbid hiring or firing based on someone’s hair style, and also calls for Juneteenth to be recognized as a state holiday.

Criminal justice reform: The caucus has for years pushed for criminal justice reform, with some success but much more work needed. Its agenda calls for release of people locked up for non-violent offenses, juveniles sentenced to life without parole. The caucus also wants more reform of habitual offender laws. It continues to push for improved prison and jail conditions and called for simple possession of marijuana to cover civil penalties only, after the state enacted a medical cannabis program.

TANF reform: Mississippi’s welfare scandal should be a call for lawmakers to root out government corruption, and the caucus wants reform in how the state manages the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to ensure it helps the poor people it’s designed to help. Ford said one proposal members have discussed is having an appointed governing board to oversee how the Mississippi Department of Human Services spends the money.

ARPA funding: The caucus wants a say in how remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief money allocated to Mississippi is spent. It wants the Legislature to keep to the intended purposes of the money — including public health, helping communities recover financially, water and sewer infrastructure and broadband access and helping “those counties and cities that did not receive enough funds to complete critical water and sewer projects.”

The caucus noted that much of its agenda has been introduced in previous years and it will continue to discuss its priorities with leadership.

“Our agenda has been crafted with the plight of all Mississippians in mind.”

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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.