JACKSON The Neshoba County Fair is a lot like a mid-term exam: a time for students, or in our case politicians, to show how much they learned about the content of the course of the legislative session or fiscal-year 2016 and prove it in a kind of oral exam or test. Scheduled at the end of July, the fair is the perfect opportunity for policymakers to evaluate the decisions made in the legislative session as well as the previous budget year.
Mid-terms also seem to bring on an onslaught of feelings, outbursts of emotion or just plain lip service to justify a grade or nudge it higher. How Mississippi scored on its mid-term exam depends on whom you ask—not necessarily along partisan lines, either. Here are the state's mid-term grades based on Neshoba County Fair remarks:
Exam Topic: State Budget
Most political speakers, including House Speaker Philip Gunn and Gov. Phil Bryant, both Republicans, steered clear of discussing the budget altogether, but those who did, for the most part, had few good things to say. Three speakers, Democrats Attorney General Jim Hood and Central District Public Service Commissioner Cecil Brown (who spoke on his own behalf, not the commission's), and Treasurer Lynn Fitch, a Republican, all cited a budget error of close to $130 million in fiscal-year 2017, which began July 1.
Brown, who used to be in the Mississippi House of Representatives and on the budget committee, said he reviewed the details of the budget and information proposed in the budget writing process and that, based on his experience, the state budget is a mess.
Fitch informed fairgoers that Mississippi is one of only a few states that has no constitutional amendment that requires the state to balance its budget. Fitch called on taxpayers and the Legislature to require accountability and change state law to make it a requirement for the state to balance its budget.
"I'm going to champion a ballot initiative to change Mississippi law by a constitutional amendment that says Mississippi will balance our budget," she said last Wednesday. "I want to challenge the Legislature to come forward with strong, specific laws on balancing our budget."
Gov. Bryant told reporters Thursday that he would welcome any measure requiring the state to balance its budget but said the leadership is already doing that—with or without an amendment.
On Aug. 1, Speaker Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, rolled out a comprehensive tax reform panel composed of lawmakers tasked to study the state's tax structure as well as examine individual agency budgets. Reeves told reporters last week that he would continue to push back on agencies that were overspending. "I'm for focusing on growing the size of our economy, not on growing the size of our government," he said.
Exam Topic: Roads and Bridges
Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall took on the state's crumbling infrastructure problem last week, exposing the two mistakes that led the state to its current condition. The Mississippi Economic Council and a PEER group estimate that the state needs to invest around $375 million to $400 million annually to make the necessary improvements and fix maintenance problems on the state's roads and bridges around the state.
Hall said Mississippi had the eighth-ranked highway system back in 1987 when the Legislature enacted the AHEAD 4-lane highway program, but that program did not include two key elements: a provision to change the gas tax rate or maintain the system the state was about to build.
Almost 30 years later, and those mistakes cost Mississippians $2.25 billion annually, a National Transportation Research Group Study found.
"We set the gasoline tax at a flat rate with no provision for it to increase in the coming years—a flat rate," Hall said. "That 18 cents per gallon is now worth 8 cents, and you buy half as much gas because your vehicle gets twice as many miles per gallon as you did 30 years ago."
Hall said the AHEAD program invested more than $3 billion in the state's infrastructure in the 80s, but without those provisions to take care of it, now the state must go back and repair what it failed to provide for initially.
Other speakers at the fair did not address the state's infrastructure investment problem, but Speaker Gunn told reporters after the announcement of the tax committee in July that the panel would look at how the state could find funding to invest in the roads and bridges. The Mississippi Economic Council proposed its funding plan in the last legislative session, but a last-minute bill was killed largely due to the amorphous tax codes that the legislation could bring to the forefront for tinkering. One of the legislative working groups will look specifically at MDOT's budget expenditures in the coming months.
Exam Topic: Religious Freedom
Religious freedom and House Bill 1523 were the hot topics at the Neshoba County Fair this year, even though a federal judge blocked the bill from becoming law and is still tied up in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, mentioned the bill in her Neshoba County Fair speech.
"The purpose of this bill is not to discriminate against anyone but simply to provide protection to those in our state who have a moral or religious objection to providing marriage-related goods or services to same-sex couples; it's just as simple as that," Branning told fairgoers last week.
House Bill 1523 also includes discrimination protections for circuit clerks, religious organizations and adoption agencies in its language. The U.S. District Court said the bill "does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi's citizens."
Branning said despite the legal battle, she would continue to stand and protect the values of her district.
Gunn, who originally authored the bill, did not discuss it directly but reiterated his stance on political issues involving same-sex marriage.
"We don't need a poll to tell to us to protect your right to bear arms or a poll to tell us that marriage is between one man and one woman, and we don't need a poll to tell us that boys and girls shouldn't go to the same restrooms together," he said onstage last week.
Bryant pushed back on media attention to a recent court filing that revealed how the Alliance Defending Freedom helped draft the policy that HB 1523 was modeled after.
"[The media said] 'they had contact with some religious organizations,' yes, yes we did," Bryant said. "We do that quite often; as a matter of fact I reach out to the American Family Association and the Alliance Defending Freedom, and I will continue to do so."
Bryant told fairgoers about his Religious Freedom Award from the conservative group, the Family Research Council.
"Secular progressives are concerned about religious freedom, and I don't understand why they're so angry or why they're so concerned about it," Bryant said. "You can exercise your religious freedoms while the laws will continue to be carried out regarding same-sex marriage. That's all we're trying to do."
The HB 1523 lawsuit alone has cost taxpayers money already, even though the attorney general declined to appeal the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hood told reporters last Wednesday that the HB 1523 lawsuits so far will cost the state around $300,000 in the plaintiffs' attorney fees alone; in both complaints filed against HB 1523, plaintiffs asked for relief, for a preliminary injunction and for the payment of their attorney fees. The Alliance Defending Freedom is defending Gov. Bryant in the 5th Circuit, which the group says will not cost the state any (more) money than the bill already has.
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at arielle_amara. Read more at jfp.ms/state and jfp.ms/lgbt.