Given the fact that we are entering what some refer to as the holiday season, late November through early January, many people will be so busy celebrating that they fail to consider the kind of legislation that is needed and should be put before the state legislature come January. Because of that tendency, the writer has developed a modest list to aid that process. It is admittedly not a comprehensive list, but it does cover some of the glaring needs.
Many other items, can be added, such as (1) the need for an adequate 60,000 seat stadium for Jackson State University; (2) permanent allocations for the infrastructure needs of Jackson as the capital city; (3) fair apportionment for state and congressional elections; (4) the automatic restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who have served their time; and (5) reform of the justice system, including removing the cap on damage payments in civil suits. What follows then are just three items that are critical and on which the writer has heard numerous discussions.
ADEQUATE PUBLIC SCHOOL FUNDING. Twenty-five years ago, the legislature created the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which was in response to the need to increase and level the funding for the public school districts of the state. Today, however, not only are the districts not funded at the same level, they are not adequately funded. A part of the problem is that the program has been fully funded only twice in its 25 years of existence.
The state legislature needs to bind itself in such a way that the program has to be fully funded each year. In terms of process, funding for the program should be addressed as the first priority, not after everything else has been funded, as is usually the case. The legislature also needs to remove the exceptions or amendments that allow some districts to forge ahead while others fall behind in what is supposed to be the adequate allocation from the state. The legislature needs to avoid chipping away from these allocations by doing things such as providing funds to private schools for special needs and funds for charter schools.
Public education needs to be fully funded – including teachers’ pay – in order to equip the state’s youth to gain a truly first class competitive education in order to help the state’s economic development, in order to stem the tide of public school educators migrating elsewhere, and in order to improve the quality of life for us all.
MEDICAID EXPANSION. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, one of its provisions was an option for Medicaid expansion. Many conservative leaders railed against the entire act, calling it Obamacare. Despite the fact that the bill became law and has proven to be tremendously helpful and popular, Mississippi’s conservative white leaders have continued to reject the Medicaid expansion option.
This state is one of only 12 states that does not participate in Medicaid expansion. It is telling that 7 of those 12 states are in the southeast – the old confederacy – and are home to many low income African American citizens. This causes the rejection to appear to be a matter of race as well as class.
It makes no difference to Governor Tate Reeves that the federal government would pay 90% of the cost and that participating in the program would save many rural hospitals from closing or cutting back on services and pump additional money into the state’s economy. He, like his predecessor, Phil Bryant, continues to oppose the idea of endorsing Medicaid expansion. This is the same governor who returned federal funds to Washington that had been sent to provide rental assistance for low income families and who had railed against economic recovery money being sent when the COVID pandemic was raging.
The state legislature needs to authorize the state’s participation in the Medicaid expansion program. After all, such neighboring states as Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky saw the light and decided to assist their citizens through the program. There is no good reason for Mississippi not to participate, except to keep low income residents at the mercy of their “overlords.”
LIVING WAGES FOR WORKERS. Currently, Mississippi has no minimum wage law, only abiding by the federal law. Needless to say, the federal law is outdated and woefully inadequate. Many states have passed minimum wage laws to surpass it.
To advocate for a living wage of $15 an hour is not unreasonable and is quite necessary in today’s economy, if one is to get out of and remain out of poverty. Six hundred dollars a month is barely a living wage when one considers the cost of food, housing, utilities, clothing, and other necessities. Yet, many leaders in the state balk at providing a living wage to workers, saying that it is not affordable for many small businesses. The legislature can pass laws that would make it more affordable for small businesses.
At the same time, it should go back and address the inadequate amount of taxes paid by the wealthy and large corporations in the states, which would help us realize that much more in the form of funding for education, health care, and wages for public workers and the low income is affordable.
At some point, this must become a compassionate, indeed a humane, society led by such a legislature. It might as well begin with the state legislature in January 2023.