OPINION: MS Legislative Black Caucus proposes what Black and working-class people need, but has a bitter fight on its hands

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In the early days of the 2024 Mississippi Legislative Session, as it formed its committees and selected its leadership, Representative Christopher Bell, the current Chairman, and the rest of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, spent valuable time on the caucus’ own legislative priorities. Those priorities were designed to meet the needs of their constituents, who are primarily Black and working-class individuals and families.

The fruits of that labor were revealed at a news conference at the Capitol last month. The document was fairly concise, but clear. It included the following language and pointers.

“The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus is dedicated to the advancement and when necessary, the defeat of legislation impacting Mississippi’s African American population.” It then called for equal ACCESS to quality public schools, affordable healthcare, and a restored ballot initiative; REFORM of the criminal justice system so that it provides second chances for young offenders and opportunities for the former incarcerated; and MANAGEMENT of the state budget, which has a historic surplus, in a way that is equitable across the state, calling particular attention to the need for a new funding model for the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, workforce development programs, and access to broadband services in Black communities as the keys to economic development in the state.

Conversations with members of the caucus, however, take one beyond those three broad categories. In conversations, the members were much more specific regarding the needs and desires of the Black community, which is above 40% in this state and of the working-class community, which is well above 75% in the state. In terms of policy initiatives, the caucus members are calling for: (1) approval of Medicaid Expansion, (2) an equitable share of broadband access funds, (3) the return of a ballot initiative, (4) criminal justice reform that also includes judicial redistricting, (5) the full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, and (6) open and equitable management of the state budget.

These are all excellent and deserving initiatives, but will require strong support from individuals and groups. There will need to be lobbying pressure in terms of physical presence at committee hearings and in the general sessions, protests around the Capitol and elsewhere, mail and messages in Jackson and in legislators’ hometowns, and other even creative tactics are needed.

We emphasize these because just as members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other Democratic supporters have filed bills to enact the desired policies, conservative Republican legislators have filed bills that do the opposite kinds of things. For an example, a ballot initiative bill had been submitted that would restore the ballot initiative, but structure it so that the legislature could veto any such measure that it does not like or prefer; it would restrict the kinds of initiatives that could be offered; and in other ways it would make the restored ballot initiative nearly meaningless. There are bills that are more punitive toward young offenders and those who have returned to society after periods of incarceration. The job will be most difficult.

There are numerous members whom one perhaps may know. One should keep in close contact with them and ascertain how he/she might be able to help them succeed in helping the entire community. There are many veterans in the caucus who know their way around and who can guide one to others that he/she may need to talk with. There are newcomers in the caucus who are eager to make a name for themselves and would therefore be willing to band with volunteers who are ordinary but interested citizens. In short, you should not be a stranger, all are needed and will be appreciated.

Because the conservative Republican Party has such a strong majority in both the House and the Senate and is in virtual lock-step with Governor Tate Reeves and the national Republican Party, it will be difficult for the Black Caucus members to succeed with most of their priorities. Nevertheless, difficult and impossible are not the same. That leaves the door open for some measures of success. 

If we understand that this will be a bitter fight, however, that means we know to gear-up accordingly, leaving no stone to possible victory unturned. That is the challenge for the next several months. 

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OPINION: MS Legislative Black Caucus proposes what Black and working-class people need, but has a bitter fight on its hands

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 12, 2024