Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, expresses his concerns during a press conference about Gov. Tate Reeves’ plan for a $246 million economic development project after the Senate passed it during a special session at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Wednesday, November 2, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Rep. Robert Johnson and Sen. Derrick Simmons, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, responded to Gov. Tate Reeves’ Jan. 30 State of the State address.

Below is the statement from Johnson and Simmons.

Editor’s note: This transcript was submitted by the leaders’ staff and has not been formatted to match Mississippi Today’s style.

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves claims ‘best year in state history.’ His 2023 challenger says he’s moved state in ‘wrong direction’

The Mississippi described in today’s State of the State is not the Mississippi lived in by the vast majority of our state’s families. It is a fantasy — a mythical Mississippi that we all wish we lived in. A booming economy; well-funded and high-performing schools; accessible, high-quality healthcare; economic opportunity for all; functioning infrastructure – it sounds pretty magical. 

And it might as well have started with “once upon a time.” 

As much as we’d like to believe in this fairy tale, for the rest of us, our Mississippi is a much different story. For many Mississippians, the reality is that our state isn’t working for us, it’s working against us. And far too often it feels like this place that we love so much doesn’t love us back. What’s most frustrating, though, is that not only do state leaders refuse to acknowledge your concerns and do their part to improve your lives — they’re ignoring our state’s issues outright, while telling us over and over again just how great everything is. 

According to the most recent census, Mississippi was one of only three states that lost population over the last ten years — a decade that saw Gov. Reeves running the state Senate for two terms as lieutenant governor, where he decided on spending and slashing and what would be prioritized or ignored. But as we watched our kids and grandkids flee, our colleagues and friends leave for greener pastures, we listened to state leaders — including Tate Reeves — tell us that Mississippi was on fire, the state’s coffers were filling up, and that brain drain was just a figment of our collective imagination. 

Tonight, again, we heard those same refrains and the same downplaying of the realities of life here in our state. 

Since last year’s State of the State address, the healthcare crisis has reached a critical point. But while we have sounded the alarm, Republicans have neglected to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for new moms; refused to prioritize sending money to rural hospitals; and continued to ignore the pleas of voters, advocates, policy experts, hospital leaders, and business leaders to expand Medicaid. We’ve been warned by the Department of Health there’s a growing area of the state in which there is no hospital to deliver a baby and we are navigating a severe nursing shortage.  

Thirty-eight rural hospitals are in danger of imminent closure — that’s 54% of Mississippi’s rural hospitals. More than 200,000 working Mississippians are without healthcare. One in six women of childbearing age is uninsured. 46,000 Mississippi children are uninsured. The only neonatal intensive care unit in the Delta closed this year, where there is one pediatrician for every 4,000 children. We are number one in the nation for babies born with low birthweight. We have the nation’s highest fetal mortality rate. Our preterm birth rate rose to 15% from 14.2% the year prior. And just in case you thought this was an issue that only affected one portion of the state, you should know that preterm birth rates worsened in Harrison County, Rankin County, Jackson County, and Madison County. 

Meanwhile, while they continue to insist there’s “more to being pro-life than anti-abortion” the governor and the party he leads have only made excuses for their inaction and vague promises that we have no reason to believe they will ever deliver on. 

Gov. Reeves also continues to say that he’ll keep fighting to eliminate the income tax. The revenue from the state income tax accounts for a third of our general fund — the portion of the budget that takes care of the most basic services you expect the government to handle. Things like education funding and money for roads and bridges come from this portion of the budget. 

Tonight, the governor told us, again, that “Mississippi continues to be in the best financial shape in its history.” And yet, 30% of Mississippi children are living in poverty. The Department of Mental Health’s workforce has decreased by nearly 4,000 since 2009. State employees – the men and women who keep our state running – are, on average, paid thousands of dollars less than their counterparts in all of our surrounding states. Our state’s schools have been underfunded by over $3 billion since 2007. Our long-neglected roadways continue to cost Mississippians, on average, $800 in vehicle damage annually. 

If Mississippi has never been in better financial shape, how do you explain how many Mississippians are struggling to make ends meet? How are our schools still struggling to provide the basics for our students? How did our capital city go without water for weeks this year? How is our healthcare system on the brink of total collapse?

The fact is, it is not a lack of available funds that stops leadership from keeping its promise to the citizens they pledged to serve; it is a lack of interest. Slashing the budget and limiting government spending does, in fact, come at a cost. A human cost. Democrats are often criticized for just wanting to throw money at a problem, but that’s not what we’re doing here. There has to be a shift in the way we think about funding government services. It’s not just about spending money. It’s about investing in Mississippi, in Mississippians – and in the future of our state. 

House and Senate Democrats have long offered up concrete ideas and common-sense solutions to move Mississippi forward. Year after year, we’ve authored legislation to address the increasingly dangerous healthcare crisis, raise the minimum wage, fix our state’s crumbling infrastructure, fully fund public education, make voting easier and more convenient, increase transparency in government, ensure equity in economic development so that all corners of our state have the opportunity to flourish, and now we’re working to restore the ballot initiative. We also led the charge on increasing teacher pay and a raise for state employees year after year — and not just when it was politically beneficial to do so. Today’s speech, like most of what comes out of the governor’s mouth, was not reflective of what it’s like outside the gates of the Governor’s Mansion; it was yet another audition to be someone’s running mate. He’s continued not to take his cues from what he’s hearing from you; but from what he knows will remind the producers at Fox News that he’s always available for a booking.

We wish that we could go along with the fairytale spun about the state of our state, but the truth is far more complicated than everyone living happily ever after. We have real work to do. The good news is, we know how to get started on making things better for all of us.

Mississippians share more values and principles than not. We care about what happens to our neighbors because that’s just who we are. We want our families to prosper and for our kids to have a better future and more opportunities than we did. But actions speak louder than words, and it seems that Tate Reeves only wants you to believe that he shares those values. 

Our state is in desperate need of a leader who sees all of that and governs based on it — someone who brings people together, someone who will acknowledge the problems we face and try to understand the causes of them. We need a governor who has respect for his fellow Mississippian, someone who will lead with honesty and empathy and compassion, and who can make the best decisions for everyone, not just a select few. We need someone who can not only hear people but listen to them. We need someone who will wake up every single morning and get to work on improving this state.

Most of all, we need someone with the guts to stand up and say, “Enough is enough, it’s time to make Mississippi a better place. For everyone.”

We can do better. And if we want our kids and grandkids to have a fighting chance, we’re going to have to.

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