JACKSON Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann expounded Monday on a lawsuit against the federal government over flooding along the Mississippi River, but said his office would not "wade into" issues concerning Jackson's water quality.
A 2015 report found that 22 percent of homes in Jackson had a startling level of lead in their water that exceeded levels required to trigger federal action. For perspective, in Flint, Mich., where dangerous water quality has been a national focal point for years, 16.7 percent of homes exceeded federal action levels for lead. When those levels are exceeded, law requires water suppliers to educate consumers on ways to avoid exposure. In samples taken in 2016, some Jackson homes had 30 times EPA action levels.
The water the city provides does not have lead it in, though; rather, the lead results from the interaction of the water with chemistry in the pipes at the homes. Those pipes often contain lead. Lead in water can lead to a wide variety of health problems and is particularly dangerous for children.
The percent of Jackson homes exceeding action levels have dropped since 2016, and the City of Jackson has sought to minimize the issue, but water tests in 2018 showed lead still remained above action levels in 10 percent of homes.
At the Stennis Institute luncheon in Jackson on Monday, Hosemann said that while his office had worked with Jackson on other projects, water quality was not part of discussions his office had with the city.
"That has to be handled by the City (of Jackson). They have to get the water right," Hosemann, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, told the Jackson Free Press. "And you could probably start by making sure everybody who gets water pays for it first. After that, I think you have sufficient funds to do that."
He was referring to the immense water-billing problems that occurred after the City of Jackson signed a hefty contract with Siemens Inc., meant to improve water billing, but had the opposite effect. The City and Siemens point to each other.
Siemens told the Jackson Free Press last week via email that it had completed its part of the contract. "Siemens completed its work with the City of Jackson in the fall of 2018," the Feb. 19 email stated. "Project completion was validated by an independent, third-party review performed by West Monroe Partners, who was hired by the City of Jackson and performed its work under the City's direction.
"The Oracle Customer Care & Billing Software went into operation in September 2015. Since then, Siemens has provided ongoing support over the last three years including additional training for city employees and additional staff support and resources. The company continues to interact with the City of Jackson Public Works Department on a regular basis to help facilitate successful operation of the metering and billing systems."
At the luncheon, Hosemann then brought up the 2,300 properties he has sold in Jackson in the past few years, and the $1 million in funds he has procured for public schools and the city.
"We'll be meeting with the mayor very shortly ... but I don't think we can wade into getting their water systems straight," Hosemann said.
'I Think This Property, Effectively, Is Gone Forever'
One water system Hosemann is keen to address, though, is the Mississippi River.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, Hosemann and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who is running for governor, alleges that the way the federal government is regulating the river's flow violates the Fifth Amendment. It requires that landowners be compensated when the federal government takes a portion of their property.
After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Old River Control Structure north of Baton Rouge in 1963, it was supposed to keep the main flow of the Mississippi from shifting into the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi. The federal government worried that, if the Atchafalaya captured too much of the Mississippi, it could dry up ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The control system also ensures enough water flows through New Orleans to be used as drinking water.
Hood and Hosemann's lawsuit, though, claims that has left nearly 8,000 acres of Mississippi lands intended for the benefit of public schools flooded and unusable. Law requires the Old River Control Structure to allow for no more than 30 percent of the Mississippi River's flow to be diverted to the Atchafalaya, but under the current scheme, only 23 to 25 percent is being diverted. That, the suit alleges, has narrowed the Mississippi's channel, kept too much sediment from flowing in Mississippi and raised the river's bed.
"As the bottom of the river has filled up from the silt not making its normal course, Mississippi has started getting flooded," Hosemann said Monday. "We are flooding virtually annually. It is underwater today and has been underwater since October. I think six out of the last 11 years, we've had 100-year floods. The real problem here, y'all, is that this is not solvable. Absent of changing the flow of the Mississippi River, this will continue."
Under the Fifth Amendment, "the government is allowed to take your property, they've just got to pay for it," Hosemann said. But the federal government has not paid Mississippi for the land flooding has taken over.
That includes 657 acres in Claiborne County School District, 5,540 acres in the Natchez-Adams School District and 1,734 in the Wilkinson County School District. Those are Sixteenth Section properties, which the state set aside to generate revenue for public schools in those counties through revenue-generators such as timber, hunting leases and land management. All three counties are part of the lawsuit.
In a Feb. 12 statement, the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees explained why it joined the suit.
"These sixteenth-section properties are an extremely important revenue source for the district and are used for the support of the schools," the statement read. "So, we believe that because of the revenue loss caused, it was in the best interest of our students to join the lawsuit with our neighboring school districts."
The school districts, and Hosemann's office, are demanding federal compensation for the lost revenue.
"I think this property effectively is gone forever. The river will eventually fill up to a level where the levees won't hold it in Louisiana, and it will change course," Hosemann said. "Until such time as it does that, our land is useless and not productive."
Hosemann Calls for 'Affordable and Acceptable' Medicaid Expansion
During the luncheon, Hosemann also repeated his openness to pursuing Medicaid expansion if elected as the state's next lieutenant governor. He told the Jackson Free Press in January that he was studying ways to pay for expansion.
At the same institute's luncheon last month, current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican candidate for governor, said he is completely opposed to the idea of Medicaid expansion, derisively labeling it "Obamacare expansion."
On Monday, Hosemann estimated that, if the state accepts Medicaid expansion, the state will eventually be on the hook for about $200 million a year, even though the federal government will cover nearly all of the cost. That is above official estimates that max out at $150 million a year.
Hosemann has been talking with Drew Snyder, the head of Mississippi's Medicaid Division, as well as hospitals, doctors and other state leaders about expansion, Hosemann said.
"I think it needs to be probably where the state is not out significant amounts of money, and the way to do that is, you do accurate projections of how many people are going to be added on, and what's their cost," he said.
He pointed to Louisiana, which saw over 100,000 more people than anticipated join the Medicaid rolls after that state expanded the program in 2016. Last April, though, a study found that, in its first year, expansion led to $1.85 billion in positive economic impact for the state. It created 19,000 new jobs, the state saved $317 million, and on top of it all, 470,000 gained health insurance.
To keep costs low in Mississippi, Hosemann pointed to other conservative states that expanded Medicaid. He cited Indiana, which implemented work requirements and uses cigarette taxes and hospital fees to fund its expansion.
"I think we could come up with something that is acceptable and affordable," Hosemann said, adding that keeping costs low is necessary, because he has other priorities he wants to fund as well.
Hosemann Criticizes GOP Lottery Bill's Focus on Infrastructure
Hosemann discussed the importance of infrastructure investments, and cited the need for "sporadic new construction" of additional highways. He took umbrage with the idea that the State should fund repairs for structurally deficient county bridges, though, like the more than 500 dangerous bridges closed in the past year.
"A lot of these are county roads, and you should expect counties to participate in maintaining their roads, not just coming to Jackson and getting a check. ... We can't have people show up when they didn't take care of 398 bridges in their own county and expect (Mississippi taxpayers) to come up with $258 million a year to subsidize it," Hosemann said.
He criticized legislation last year to establish a state lottery that will devote all funds to infrastructure. Those funds, he said, should have gone to education instead. During last summer's special session, Democrats in the Legislature pushed for those funds to go to education, but Republican leaders overruled those efforts.
Yearly Teacher Pay Raises, With 20-Year-Olds in Classrooms
Education is a priority for Hosemann, who would have not only executive powers but legislative powers as the president of the Mississippi Senate if elected lieutenant governor.
"If I'm lucky enough to be there, I intend to raise teacher salaries each year—not just on election years," he said.
Earlier this month, the GOP-dominated Senate passed a $1,000 teacher pay raise to be phased in over a two-year period. Democrats criticized it, though, saying it only raises teacher pay by $9.62 a week or $1.37 a day. That is not enough to keep up with inflation since the last time legislators raised teacher pay in the lead-up to the 2015 statewide elections.
Mississippi ranks near the bottom for teacher pay nationally, and the Legislature consistently underfunds education. That has led to an exodus of teachers from the state, creating a growing teacher-shortage crisis.
To alleviate the shortage, the presidents of the University of Southern Mississippi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College have worked out an agreement that would put teachers as young as 20 years old in elementary and special-education classrooms.
To do that, high school students would earn an associate's degree by completing MGCCC's Collegiate Academy during their junior and senior years. Right out of high school, they would be eligible to enter the Southern Miss Teachers College and, after two years, earn a teaching degree.
An Educated Workforce
In addition to annual teacher pay raises, Hosemann emphasized the importance of connecting future employers, community colleges, high schools and vocational programs. As secretary of state, one of his main areas of concern deals with businesses in the state. Creating an educated workforce, he said, is the number-one issue his platform will focus on.
At 55 percent, Mississippi has the second lowest labor-force participation rate in the country, trailing only West Virginia, he pointed out. The national average is 63 percent. As lieutenant governor, Hosemann would like to see Mississippi's labor-force participation rate rise 1 percent a year, he said.
"When we're going to work our way out of here, it will be when we don't give a young man a high-school diploma and ask, 'What are you going to do now?' That's too late," he said. "Our community-college system will be embedded in high schools. And with that, our young men and women will be offered not only to play basketball on a Friday night, but to do robotics during the rest of the time."
As secretary of state, Hosemann has encouraged employers to take part in career and technical education, or CTE, programs. Those programs, which are available at K-12 schools and community colleges in Mississippi, provide skills training in an academic environment that can help participating businesses grow a more skilled labor pool. His office surveyed about 5,600 Mississippi businesses in December 2018, though, finding that fewer than 20 percent of businesses had taken advantage of CTE, and 10 percent said they did not know what CTE was.
"Our emphasis will be on an educated workforce," Hosemann said Monday. "I've been everywhere from Corinth to Pascagoula meeting with some principals and what-not, and it's clearly apparent to me that that is the answer."
Hosemann pointed to the Pine Belt, where he recently met in Hattiesburg with more than 100 businesses as well as public-school and community-college leaders about career technical training. "I felt the Hattiesburg public schools got it, and the relationship between them, the businesses, and the community colleges—eventually, those differences between them will collapse into one educational opportunity," he said.
Oxford Rep. Jay Hughes, an opponent who is running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor, told the Jackson Free Press on Monday that, while he is a product of and "completely supports" career technical training, it is only half the equation.
"The other half are the soft skills that we simply don't teach anymore, and they've been lost in a time of so much reliance on technology," he said.
Those skills, Hughes said, include things like "being on time, a commitment to work, shaking hands firmly and looking someone in the eye" and "being able to do simple transactions whether it's with money or measurements or technology." Every student in high school should have to take financial-responsibility classes, he said.
Making sure all high schools have access to similar levels of technology, Hughes added, is also important. For example, he said, one school should not have all new Macintosh computers, while another relies on 10-year-old PCs.
Hughes agrees with Bryant's support for giving high school graduates the option of attending a year of community colleges for certificate programs.
"If we allow them to get a certified course training, they can be a welder, a cosmetologist, an HVAC repairman, a commercial truckman," Hughes said. "We have got to quit pretending there is no brain drain, and we have got to quit pretending that everyone will go to college, because when we do that, we relegate half the population to only being able to make minimum wage."
Email city intern reporter Taylor Langele at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @taylor_langele. Email state reporter Ashton Pittman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ashtonpittman.