OPINION: The Legislative Session is over; it’s time to assess and move upward and onward

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The 2023 session of the Mississippi Legislature is over. The members are back at home, most of them preparing for re-election. Like Benjamin Franklin, many people are now breathing a sigh of relief; no more damage can be done. One legislator said that for Black people it was the worst session in memory, a comment shared by many others, based upon key negative actions that were taken.

The negatives can start with the multi-pronged attack on the governmental authority of the city of Jackson. The attack was easy to follow by people located in the area. Yet, it was so blatant until it made news around the state and country. It was unprecedented. While the struggle to wrest the Medgar Evers airport from the city lay dormant but still alive, during this legislative session, efforts were initiated to: (1) take control of Jackson’s water system, (2) seize 1/3 of the city’s territory by converting it into an improvement district, with its own appointed criminal justice and court systems, and (3) expand the Capitol Police force’s jurisdiction across the entire city.

There is no consolation in knowing that similar efforts were taking place elsewhere with predominately Black cities being controlled by predominately white state governments. The political moves in Jackson were even more hurtful since they were accompanied by devastating economic initiatives. The economic moves include the fact that for years Jackson has been neglected in terms of funding from the state; for years, Jackson’s infrastructural needs have been passed-over while Madison and Rankin counties, in particular, have jettisoned ahead; and that for years, agreements have been made to recruit big businesses to the areas surrounding but not in Jackson. Together, such moves have accelerated white flight and middle-class Black flight from the city, leaving it with a shrinking tax base, a struggling public school system, and declining city services.

Based upon bills introduced by the likes of Senator Trey Lamar of Panola County, Jackson will soon be over-run by the Capitol Police, resulting in escalating police abuse of Black citizens, in arrested suspects being sent to department of corrections facilities in Rankin County, and in suspects being and tried by Supreme Court-appointed judges. Although Republican leaders try to pass all of this off as gradual and/or temporary conditions, it follows the pattern of what is happening in other Republican-dominated areas. It points very clearly to an attempt to bring back the days of Jim Crow. “Make America great again” means returning the country back to the days when white supremacy was virtually unchallenged, if not unquestioned. 

Even if the measures described above remained in effect only for Jackson and Hinds County, that would be bad enough. Other counties and municipalities, however, can expect this to be merely a dress rehearsal for the rest of the state and region.

In the meantime, every Black community is immediately being affected by the Senate’s refusal to confirm Dr. Robert Taylor as State Superintendent of Education. The vast majority of Black children attend the public schools. Taylor’s rejection strikes at them directly. The vote against his confirmation was to some extent surprising because he had come highly recommended, was unrelentingly praised by the State Board of Education, and had been on the job since November. Apparently, he was too progressive for many of the right-wing state senators. It was another step in controlling the public schools, after many of them have abandoned public schooling for their off-spring. 

Many Black families will continue to suffer because the state legislature refused to pass any legislation that would expand Medicaid. The Republican-dominated legislature added to the oppression of voting rights by passing a law to prevent what they call “voter harvesting.” They passed a law that is designed to eliminate the practice wherein friends, neighbors, relatives, and civil rights workers help gather and turn-in absentee ballots from people who have difficulty getting to the polls. Beyond even the Black community, the legislature failed to enact an effective initiative process that would enable there to be citizen-led efforts to change state statutes or the state constitution. One by one, these and other actions were taken, handicapping Black and other marginalized people in the process.

The legislature also missed a golden opportunity by not fully-funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). This would have been the first time in more than 20 years that it was fully-funded. The school districts need the money and it is available. House Speaker Philip Gunn, however, did not want to fund MAEP because he opposes increasing administrative salaries. Nevertheless, the increased funding above last session’s level was a small victory for the public schools. Another small victory for working-class people was the failure of the body to eliminate the state income tax. Overall, nevertheless, the session was bad news for those who are working-class, Black, and/or marginalized.

Having gotten through that terrible session, it is time to assess and decide how to counteract the bad, maximize the good, and increase the number of officials who can and will adequately represent the interests of Black, marginalized, and working-class people. We also need to insist on the members of the Legislative Black Caucus and the Hinds County delegation calling the community together, issuing their position on each of the critical legislative issues that we face, and helping us organize and fight our way out of these difficult circumstances. (The fight has to be in the courts, at the ballot box, and in the streets.) The legislature’s time is over. It’s our time now to use our intelligence, energy, courage, and determination to move onward and upward. 

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OPINION: The Legislative Session is over; it’s time to assess and move upward and onward

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 10, 2023