Democrats ready to fight Republicans on education, medicare, racial disparities despite overwhelming numbers

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Lawmakers address legislative concerns at MEC forum during opening week of the 2023 Legislative Session. (Photo by Earnest McBride)

While the Legislative Black Caucus (LBC) is a separate entity from the Democratic Party Caucus, the two groups work closely together in legislative and policy matters in the Mississippi State Capitol. 

In the 2023 session, the Legislative Black Caucus will push for legislation in support of Healthcare,  Education, TANF Reform, Critical Infrastructure (clean water and Internet access), and Election Reform, among others, according to Sen. Angela Turner Ford, MLBC chair. 

MLBC agenda items included Economic Justice and Racial Equity, Criminal Justice Reform, Restoration of the Ballot Initiative and Referendum and American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding.

The state’s Democrats and Republicans are rarely on the same page when it comes to  issues, and they are not likely to change that fact in the current session.

This is an election year and so Republicans will embrace “safe” issues like tax cuts and health assistance for pregnant women, but they will avoid the issues that impact most people’s lives – issues like Medicare expansion, hospital closings throughout rural Mississippi, fully funding public education,  increasing the minimum wage and prison reform. 

Republicans have a clear-cut edge in numbers in every branch of Mississippi State government. And they haven’t been the least bit shy over the last 12 years in demonstrating to their numerically weak and predominantly Black Democratic colleagues what having such numbers can do for a ruling party.

Black Senate Democrats shook Republicans out of their comfort zone in January 2022, however, as all 14 walked out en masse when a bill that sought to criminalize the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools was brought up for a vote.

A big problem for the bill’s supporters was that they had no clear idea of what CRT really was. Even the author of the bill, Sen. David McLendon of Hernando, confessed that he didn’t know what critical race theory was but that he had heard about it on the national news and “wanted to ensure it would not be taught in Mississippi.” 

The anti-CRT bill passed nevertheless.

All 8 of the top elected state offices are held by Republicans. Republicans dominate in the House of Representatives by a margin of 76 to 42 (38 Black) over Democrats, along with 3 Independents. The Senate has twice as many Republicans – 36 – as Democrats 16 (14 Black). 

Sitting on the $1.8 billion allotted the state as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who is also president of the State Senate, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Phillip Gunn, have all been touting the end of income taxes as a priority for the new session.  

The Republicans levied the largest corporate and business tax cuts in state history under former Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016. Now, the state continues to lose $415 million in annual revenue from that cut. In the 2022 session, the GOP supermajority passed House Bill 531, the largest income tax cut in Mississippi history.  The current 4 percent tax bracket was eliminated and the 5 percent bracket will be reduced to a flat 4 percent in 2026.  

DEMOCRATS 

FIGHT BACK

Senate minority leader Derrick Simmons of Greenville opposed the tax cuts.

“Make no mistake,” Simmons said, “plans to dramatically cut or even eliminate the state individual income tax will make it harder for us to lift up working families, provide a great education for all our students, build safe and reliable infrastructure, and promote economic growth. To support these tax cuts is to put special interests ahead of the wellbeing of the state, our communities, or our people. Supporters of proposed tax cuts are selling empty promises. The truth is, eliminating or reducing the state individual income tax won’t make Mississippi more prosperous or competitive.”

Seeing that over $500 million would be lost from the annual budget, House Democrats voted “no” or “present” on the income tax bill, while all 92 Republicans voted yes. When added together, the money from the two bills reduces the state revenue by nearly $1 billion each year. 

Democrats expressed fear that a major increase in sales and grocery taxes will fall on the back of the average and low-income wage earners to make up for these losses. Republicans who engineered the cuts won’t say exactly how they plan to replace the income when the almost assured shortfalls occur in coming years.

Sen. Joseph Thomas of Yazoo City called for an increase in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, citing the recent theft of the bulk of these funds by top government insiders as  inhumane and criminal. 

“We need to increase the amount of TANF money going to women and children,” Thomas said. “Now, it’s about $260 per month. That’s not enough. We have a balance in our state fund somewhere around $47 million. That money’s just sitting in the bank. We need to make sure that we get those funds to women and children.”

TANF reform is one of the priorities listed by the LBC. The group calls for a governing board to oversee and help administer TANF dollars. 

Sen. Kelvin Butler, Dist. 38, Adams County, also puts the expansion of Medicaid at the top of his list for the 2023 session. 

“That’s the biggest issue in our state,” he said. “Expand Medicaid and make sure the rural hospitals stay open and that we continue to serve the people that we represent.”

At least 38 hospitals are on the verge of closing, he said.

“I’m in a rural area where most of our hospitals are struggling. I represent Walthall, Pike, Adams, Amite and Wilkinson Counties down in southwest Mississippi. And we’re really struggling down there trying to keep our doors open.

 “I’m totally against the proposed income tax cut. I think that’s a waste of money. That’s money we could use to expand Medicaid.  It’ll cost about $200 million from the state to expand Medicaid, but in return we’d get over $1 billion every year by investing $200 million. To me that’s a no-brainer. I’m thinking of economic development for the entire state and not just one portion of our state. That’s my goal. If we can expand and get the dollars coming in all over our state, we will have growth in all parts of our state, and it’ll be good for all of us.” 

Rep.  Hester Jackson-McCray, Dist. 40, DeSoto County, supported the veto overrides that somehow were removed from the legislative agenda by both Gunn and Hosemann. 

“I supported the override,” McCray said. “Let us do our job. Our issues in DeSoto County are Medicaid Expansion and early voting. I’m hoping that some of that will come through this time.”

Bo Brown. Dist. 70, of Jackson, is pushing for a minimum wage increase from $7.25 up to $8.50 per hour, for mental health care for released inmates, and the return of civics to the school curriculum. 

“The Dem. Caucus stands behind that increase and hopefully we’ll be able to get us out of the bottom of the barrel in terms of the poverty level. I also want to get more money for the cultural arts in the City of Jackson and more money for law enforcement and firefighting. I have a fire station and the planetarium on my list of bills.”

“The Democratic Caucus has both pros and cons about the elimination of the income tax with half the members supporting and the other half not supporting it. If you eliminate the income tax, it won’t necessarily benefit the lower income person, the little man. It’s going to help the higher income citizen. It’s not a big demand from my constituency to eliminate the income tax,” Brown said.

Sen Hillman Frazier, who represents Dist. 27 in Jackson, has continuing concerns about Jackson’s water crisis, among other issues.

“At the top of my list of priorities,” Frazier said, “we’ll have to address the water crisis and also the problems it has caused for Jackson State. We don’t want to impede the growth of Jackson State. We’re going to have to build new dormitories for the university because they’ve had more applicants and had nowhere to put them. We don’t have enough space to accommodate the students there right now. We’re going to have to address that issue.”

OUTSIDE 

INFLUENCES 

The three top Republicans seemed to have been competing for the affections of some of the nation’s most notorious anti-government and anti-tax conservatives who are given an open invitation to visit and address legislative committees with their wacky notions of massive tax cuts and even the total abolition of the income tax. The Koch Foundation, Grover Norquist, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are just three of a fairly large number of such national influencers who often write these laws and policies for Republicans in Mississippi and over 20 other states and disguise them as state laws.

In fact, House Speaker Phillip Gunn was national chairman of ALEC in 2020. State Senator Josh Harkins currently sits on ALEC’S national board of directors and was chairman of the state chapter of ALEC a few years ago. Some legislative bills don’t seem to make sense to the average voter. For example, Mississippi’s elimination of state income tax and the anti-Critical Race Theory bills were very likely foisted upon the state by ALEC agents inside state government.

Gov. Reeves was only lukewarm at the signing of the bill. He wanted to eliminate the income tax altogether. The tax cut goes into effect in 2023. 

LOCAL 

CONCERNS

Rep. Cedric Burnett from Dist. 9, in Tunica wants to limit the absolute control that school conservators currently have over impacted school districts. 

“The Tunica school system is still under conservatorship, and the conservator has total control,” Burnett says. “He is the superintendent and the board all in one. That one person can decide to impose a tax increase on the people, and that person might not live in Tunica. So, I’m planning to submit a bill that restricts the conservator’s power to impose a tax increase. The tax increase will have to be approved by the levying authority. The levying authority in Tunica County is the board of supervisors. In the city schools, the levying authority will be the mayor and the board of aldermen. 

Because the casino industry that is so critical to Tunica’s economy has been losing money to Arkansas, Burnett is submitting a bill that will allow Tunica to have land-based casinos. 

“The bill I’m submitting is to allow casinos to be land based instead of being across the levy,” he said. “I want them to be able to locate on the dry side of the levee, so they won’t have to worry about flooding anymore.”

Burnett said that he retains an open mind on the proposed income tax elimination. “I’m for lightening the burden on taxpayers,” he said. “I haven’t seen a bill presented yet. Once you see a bill, then you can see what it will affect. I’m open to it.”

Dist. 69 Representative Alyce Clarke of Jackson says she wants to get something done for education.

“If we do something about education, we will solve a lot of our other problems,” she said. “Of course, I’m definitely hoping that the state will help us with the water crisis. We’re having that problem mainly because of neglect that has been carried on by the state for some years. Now if we can do something about those three things, I would really feel good.” 

“It’s going to be an interesting session,” says Rep. Earle Banks of Jackson’s Dist. 69.

“The state has a lot of money that they can do things with. They have a lot of surplus money in the budget. But there’s also the prediction that the country’s going to have an economic recession in  a year or two. We don’t know what effect that’s going to have on the budget, but I’m afraid of giving away tax cuts or eliminating the income tax altogether. If we do that and the state gets into fiscal necessity, then they’re going to raise the sales tax. And that doesn’t work well for me. I’m opposed to raising sales taxes.

“We are tired of seeing Mississippi always on the bottom. We can get ourselves off the bottom by making the economy work for us, as Jim Evans used to always say. And the economy we got here in Mississippi now is not working for the poorest of the poor. If they want to change it, they’ve got to come out and make a difference and vote on every election day. They’ve got to be supervoters.” 

Banks has introduced a resolution to commend U. S. Representative Bennie Thompson for all the work he did on the Jan. 6 Commission.  

“I’ve also introduced a resolution to change the statues we have representing Mississippi in the halls of Congress, from Jefferson Davis and L.Q.C. Lamar, to Elvis and B.B. King.” Banks said. 

MLBC Chair Turner-Ford indicated that the legislative agenda contains items carried over a number of issues from the previous legislative session. Mississippians need to know that the MLBC agenda items are being advanced to increase their quality of life, she said.

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Democrats ready to fight Republicans on education, medicare, racial disparities despite overwhelming numbers

By Earnest McBride
January 16, 2023