JACKSON "Blue Lives Matter," Gov. Phil Bryant stated emphatically when he spoke from the Mississippi House of Representatives on Tuesday night, reiterating his legislative priorities in front of the state's elected officials, Supreme Court justices, various agency heads and lawmakers.
Bryant began his annual State of the State address by thanking law enforcement officers around the state, reiterating his responsibility to maintain public safety.
"The first and most important responsibility of any governor is public safety, and across our nation, law enforcement is under attack," Bryant said on Jan. 17. "Here in Mississippi, most of our citizens continue to support and respect the men and women who wear the badge and protect and serve. I appreciate the legislation you (lawmakers) have introduced to protect law enforcement and show the nation that here in Mississippi, blue lives matter."
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have filed four "Blue Lives Matter Act" bills, in addition to other legislation that would categorize assaults on police officers as hate crimes. FBI statistics show that assaults on police officers were up in 2015 compared to the previous year, with 50,212 officers assaulted in 2014. In 2011 and 2012, however, this number was much higher, cresting more than 54,000 in 2011.
FBI statistics show that 41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2015. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks law enforcement fatalities, estimates that 64 law enforcement officers were shot and killed in 2016, an increase and the highest peak since 2011. In 2011, 72 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed. Firearms-related fatalities peaked back in the 1970s, however, fund data show. In 1973, 156 officers were shot and killed, and since then those numbers have decreased.
In Mississippi, one law enforcement officer died in 2016, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund data show. From 2002 to 2015, 17 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in Mississippi, FBI data show.
Gov. Bryant called on lawmakers to "back the badge," saying 2016 was a difficult year for law enforcement. He also asked the Legislature to fund the Mississippi Highway Patrol in order to start a new trooper school. He said the state currently has 161 troopers—fewer than statutorily allowed.
The governor took time later in his remarks to tout the state's progress in education reforms, pointing to Mississippi's highest graduation rate from last year (82 percent) as well as the amount of third graders who passed the third-grade reading gate exam.
"We're also making progress in education," Bryant said. "More than 90 percent of third graders passed the reading exam last year."
Passing the third-grade reading gate does not mean a child is proficient in reading or literacy, however. Superintendent of Education Carey Wright reminded the House Education Committee at the start of the session that lawmakers need to change the pass rate to Level 4 or 5, not stop at Level 3, so that scores can reflect proficiency.
"Passing this assessment is not the same as proficiency, and I need everyone to really clearly understand that because I've heard people say, 'We have 92 percent of our third graders proficient in reading,' and the answer is, 'No, you have 92 percent of our third graders who have passed this assessment," Wright told lawmakers in January. "Now, are a good portion of them proficient? Absolutely. But you help me raise the bar on this."
The governor also mentioned his support for legislative leaders' efforts to "modernize" the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state's school funding formula.
Bryant, who cut $50 million from the state's budget last week, meaning less than 1.5 percent to most state agencies, told lawmakers they should look at consolidating some of the numerous boards and commissions that the state funds.
"Consolidation among agencies, boards and commissions, many of which serve identical functions and duplicate services, may not save a significant amount of money immediately but would over time generate the kind of cost savings that could strengthen core functions of government like education and public safety," Bryant said. "To many, these are sacred cows as if somehow a board of commissioners would be preferable to oversight and management by elected officials that's accountable to the people who elected them."
Bryant asked lawmakers to terminate at least 16 boards that have not met in over a year, but he also proposed starting a new council: the Mississippi Faith-Based and Community and Advisory Council, an idea that came from a local rabbi, he said. Bryant said the council will expand the work of volunteer faith-based community organizations throughout the state.
Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected].