JACKSON Democratic Response to the Mississippi State of the State Address:
Good evening. I am Parker Wiseman, the Mayor of the City of Starkville. It is an honor to address you on behalf of the Mississippi Democratic Party, the Democratic members of the Mississippi Legislature, and our Party’s local and county officials.
Governor Phil Bryant just delivered the State of the State Address. And when he explains that some of our citizens and businesses are doing well, he’s right. But today, more Mississippians are struggling than ever before. Unemployment is unacceptably high in our state. Incomes are too low, and opportunities are too few and far between. These problems are too big for any one party or any one idea to fix. But I know that if we can put party labels aside and work together, we can create a better Mississippi.
As a mayor, every day I work with Republicans and Democrats alike to solve my community’s problems. And like many of my colleagues who serve Mississippi’s communities as council members, aldermen, and supervisors, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring problems. We can’t afford to debate them and move on, hoping that they’ll solve themselves. We must face them head-on every day. The schoolchildren who are without the resources they need to succeed are our children and our neighbors’ children. The working poor who are being priced out of healthcare are the folks we sit next to in church pews and high school stadium bleachers. The hospitals struggling to survive are our community hospitals. And the teachers and police officers worried about their retirement are the men and women who taught us and keep our homes safe.
In Starkville, when the well-being of our community is at stake, there is no problem too big, too small, or too divisive for us to take on.
We have prioritized economic development and improved quality of life. And focusing on those priorities has paid off.
For the past four years, retail sales and tourism spending in Starkville have gone up every single year.2 And
1 Starkville Planning & Building Dept., “Internal Audit of New Business Permits” (2011). 2 Mississippi Department of Revenue, “Statistics and Reports,” available at
http://www.dor.ms.gov/info/stats/main.html (last visited Jan. 21, 2014).
3 Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal BizBuzz, “Corinth, Starkville finalists for C Spire fiber-to-home service,” available at http://bizbuzz.djournal.com/2013/11/04/corinth- starkville-finalists-c-spire-fiber-home-service (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
businesses have opened their
Over the past five years, more than 100 new
doors in Starkville.1
later this year,
through a partnership with C Spire, we plan to become one of less than 1 percent of
American cities with Internet download speeds of 1 gigabit per second.3
The road to advancement has often been treacherous. It’s been filled with disagreements and compromises on all sides. But the reward for staying at the table and finding solutions has been worth it for our community.
Local leaders across our great state understand that our number one job is to tackle problems and help improve the lives of the people in our communities. That’s because Mississippi’s towns are the lifeblood of our State. They’re the places where we have our roots, where we build our futures, where we take care of our families and neighbors.
But no town is an island. We are all connected.
And together, we still have long way to go. In our state, one out of every five people lives in poverty.4 That is by far the highest poverty rate in America, and it means we all know someone who is struggling just to make ends meet. And out of the 50 states in this country, Mississippi’s unemployment rate is higher than all but five.5
For the last several years, the gap between the American dream and the American reality has gotten wider for Mississippians.
Our schools are chronically under-funded. Our local hospitals are being squeezed to the breaking point. Our infrastructure continues to fail the needs of our people and our industries. These are problems that need solving. But year after year, Republican leaders in our State Capitol spend far more time grandstanding than solving real problems. This is unacceptable. As leaders, if we are not devoting our time and efforts to solving these fundamental problems, we are failing our people, and we are holding our State back from its true potential.
The decisions that are made in our State Capitol affect the entire Mississippi family. These are enormous responsibilities.
Democrats in the Mississippi Legislature have proposed a package called the “Mississippi Achievement Plan.”6 I support this plan because it gives Mississippi’s towns and cities the tools they need to succeed. This agenda is the right one to get our people back to work; to support job growth; to provide for a safe and healthy Mississippi; and,
4 U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty and Shared Households by State: 2011,” available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/acsbr11-05.pdf (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
5 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Unemployment Rates for States” (November 2013), available at http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
6 MPB Online, “Democratic Lawmakers Set 2014 Legislative Agenda,” available at http://mpbonline.org/News/article/democratic_lawmakers_set_2014_legislative_age nda(last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
most importantly, to invest in the future of our children by providing a quality education and paying our teachers a fair wage.
No Mississippian should be satisfied with our current record on these issues. Two weeks ago, a national report card gave Mississippi’s education system an “F.”7 In December, the United Health Foundation ranked Mississippi last among the 50 states for its failure to address key public health concerns.8 And the American Society of Civil Engineers has concluded that over half of Mississippi’s major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.”9
We can and we must do better!
The Governor’s proposed budget calls for a modest increase in Kindergarten through 12th grade funding. While I appreciate the Governor’s acknowledgement that we must do more for our children, the Republican budget does not go far enough. The same national report card that just ranked Mississippi last for academic achievement explained that we are national leaders for setting accountability standards for the classroom; however, when it comes to funding the priorities that we’ve set, we are again at the very bottom. The cycle of setting high standards, providing no support to meet them, and then passing the blame when we fail is unsustainable and unacceptable. It is a disservice to our teachers and, ultimately, to our children.
Let’s make 2014 the year we end this vicious cycle. It is past time for Mississippi to fully invest in our children. In 1997, Mississippi enacted the Adequate Education Program, a formula designed to ensure an adequate education for every child regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor. But the promise our leaders made nearly 20 years ago has been broken far more often than it’s been kept. Last year, we fell $292 million short of this goal.10 In towns and counties across Mississippi, many of our local school
7 Clarion-Ledger, “National report: Mississippi gets ‘F’ on school performance,” available at http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20140109/NEWS/301090053/National-report- Mississippi-gets-F-school-performance (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
8 WTVA, “United Health Foundation: Mississippi unhealthiest state,” available at http://www.wtva.com/news/local/story/United-Health-Foundation-Mississippi- unhealthiest/drT3qVdfQkytDbiwpMhSWQ.cspx (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
9 American Society of Civil Engineers, “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” available at http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/mississippi/mississippi-overview/ (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
10 Gulf Live, “Mississippi legislature sets $4.4 billion budget for fiscal 2014,” http://blog.gulflive.com/mississippi-press- news/2013/03/mississippi_legislature_sets_5.html (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
boards have had to raise taxes at the local level just to provide basic classroom necessities.11 If we are to have any hope of creating the Mississippi that our children deserve, we must fully fund our public schools every year. And that doesn’t mean next year. That means this year.
We Democrats also recognize that we cannot achieve our education goals without taking care of our teachers. We welcome the support of House Speaker Phillip Gunn and other Republicans who have expressed an interest in raising teacher pay this year. Our teachers deserve a significant across-the-board pay raise, and we can do it without raising anyone’s taxes.12 A meaningful teacher pay raise would make our educators’ salaries competitive among Southeastern states13 and help encourage our best and brightest teachers to stay in Mississippi.
And it is past time for Governor Bryant and Republicans in the Legislature to prioritize healthcare. We must stop playing politics with the health of our grandparents, children and working families. Mississippi’s communities have worked hard to build the hospitals and healthcare facilities that we use every day. These stations are the only hope for people in our communities dealing with trauma or acute illness. That is why we must act now to stop the loss of federal payments to our hospitals. If we do not act, Mississippi will lose at least $2.2 billion in Medicare funding over the next seven years.14 That would mean a loss of $145 million in 2014 alone. We need that funding to provide healthcare coverage for our seniors, our neighbors in need, and to keep our community hospitals up and running.
11 See, e.g., Neshoba Democrat, “3-2 vote to raise taxes,” available at http://neshobademocrat.com/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=297&ArticleID=3 0246 (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
12 Compare MSNewsNow.com, “Mississippi revenue collections create surplus,” available at http://www.msnewsnow.com/story/22748015/revenue (last visited Jan. 21, 2014) (projected budget surplus of $295 million), with Clarion-Ledger, “Mississippi teachers rally for pay raise,” available at http://www.clarionledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2014301210031 (last visited Jan. 21, 2014) (estimated cost of a $5,000 teacher pay raise is $201 million).
13 National Education Association, “Rankings and Estimates: Rankings of the States 2012 and Estimates of School Statistics 2013,” available at http://www.nea.org/assets/img/content/NEA_Rankings_And_Estimates- 2013_(2).pdf (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
14 Jackson Free Press, “Medicaid: A Job Creator?”, available at http://mepconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/MEPC-Jackson-Free-Press- Medicaid-and-Jobs-July-2012.pdf (last visited Jan. 20, 2014).
I’m proud of Democrats in the House and Senate who fought to expand Medicaid in 2013. That was the right fight to pick and I’m glad that they are still fighting to help families from the Gulf Coast to the Appalachian foothills have access to the healthcare they need.
This session, Democrats will also ask Republicans to help bring Mississippi’s infrastructure into the 21st century. A recent report concluded that Mississippians spend an extra $811 million every year in vehicle repairs and operating costs, simply because our roads are falling apart.15 According to another report, nearly 15 percent of our 17,000 bridges are “structurally deficient,” and another 8 percent of our bridges are “functionally obsolete.” This is as much a public-safety problem as it is an economic- development problem, and I’m glad Democrats in the Legislature have made it a part of their plan. I urge Governor Bryant and his Republican colleagues to make it their priority, too.
Investing in the repair of our bridges and roads would not only make Mississippi safer and more attractive to businesses, it would mean good paying, quality jobs. That is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up.
Finally, the time has come to stop playing political games with the Public Employees Retirement System. Nearly a quarter-million state employees set aside money every month, and they expect that their employer will make good on its promise to provide a stable retirement. We must honor that promise.
Tonight, I began by saying that Mississippi still has a long way to go before she achieves her full potential. But none of these problems is unsolvable. If our Governor and his Republican colleagues put partisan politics aside, we can and we will succeed. Mississippians are a tough breed. We have always found a way to overcome our struggles. We Democrats have put forward a plan to take the first steps. I invite Governor Bryant and other Republican leaders at the Capitol to join us in our fight for a better life for everyone in our state.
May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the State of Mississippi.