By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — With the 2013 Mississippi legislative session starting next week, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says he believes there’s bipartisan support for charter schools and for efforts to improve children’s reading skills in early elementary grades.
The Rankin County Republican also says he would support a “reasonable, rational” bond bill that focuses on long-term needs, not short-term projects such as new roofs for state buildings. The 2012 session ended without an agreement on issuing bonds to finance projects. While House leaders last year sought a bond package of $250 million or more, Senate leaders sought less than half of that, with Reeves saying he didn’t want to increase the state’s debt.
Reeves served eight years as state treasurer. He’s beginning his second year as lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the state Senate.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Reeves said he’ll look at any immigration-enforcement bills that might be filed before commenting in detail on the issue. He said he hopes the U.S. Congress acts “to make it significantly more difficult” for illegal immigrants to enter and remain in the country. In 2012, the Mississippi House passed a bill that would have allowed law enforcement officers to check people’s immigration status during traffic stops or other encounters. The bill, which was supported by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, died in a Senate committee amid opposition from business and agriculture groups.
Reeves said he’ll release details of his legislative agenda sometime after the session begins. He said he believes a large number of Mississippians and “an overwhelming majority of Republicans” support charter schools, although he added: “It’s not a partisan issue.”
Charters are public schools that are free from some state regulations. They often have different approaches to academics or discipline. Supporters say charters allow for greater innovation, but critics say an emphasis on them could detract from seeking broader improvements in schools.
Bryant has proposed $15 million to help improve reading instruction for children in early grades and says students who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade should be held back for more work. Reeves said he believes there’s widespread agreement at the Capitol that it’s important for children to be strong readers by the end of third grade because those who struggle are more likely to become dropouts.
Here are other excerpts from the AP interview with the lieutenant governor:
AP: Aside from charter schools, what’s on your education agenda?
Reeves: “One of the things I supported last year was increased funding for K-12 education. That’s something that we’ll continue to work towards because while I think we’ve got to reform our existing system, we also have to invest in our priorities. And public education is clearly, just based upon the amount of press and publicity it’s received in the last 12 months, clearly a priority for this government. … We increased community college funding, we level funded IHL (Institutions of Higher Learning), and we cut virtually every other budget in state government. And I think you’ll see a renewed effort this year to continue to increase funding for K-12 to ensure that adequate resources are provided.”
AP: There’s been some discussion around the Capitol that legislators might consider revamping the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula. What’s your position on that?
Reeves: “It’s a rather complex formula, obviously. It’s a formula that, when it was originally passed in 1997, it contemplated that it would be recalculated and recalibrated and presented to the Legislature every single year. In 2005, the Legislature with, I presume, the governor’s approval and support and maybe even his initiative … changed the recalculation, recalibration, if you will, from annually to every four years. Now, I’m not going to tell you that they were right in ’97 or that they were right or wrong in 2005, but what I will tell you is that the difference in, quote, ‘full funding’ for MAEP, the difference had we done what they originally said in ’97 versus what they did in 2005, is … approximately $150 million. … Any formula that can have that large a discrepancy ought to be reviewed. And I think the process has begun, at least, to review that. What I personally prefer to look at is: Where are we funding K-12 today in comparison to where we funded it a year ago, where we funded it two years ago?”
AP: What, if anything, should the state do to develop pre-kindergarten programs?
Reeves: “The one thing I think everyone agrees on is we’re not going to go from no state funding for pre-K to fully funding a 13th or 14th grade, which is going to cost $350 million. We’re not going to do that overnight. We don’t have sufficient resources to do that. But what we can do is look at the delivery mechanism that’s currently in place and try to find ways to improve upon it and try to find ways to ensure that those kids that are in day cares, are in other areas, are coming to kindergarten in the most prepared way possible.”
AP: What kind of economic development proposals will you have this session?
Reeves: “The thing that we’ve said repeatedly is: Government does not create jobs. Government simply creates an environment which encourages the private sector to invest capital and create jobs. And so what you’ll see from us are proposals and support of legislation that helps create that environment which encourages the public sector to want to come to Mississippi and invest capital and create jobs. But it’s also about creating that environment which encourages those businesses that currently operate here to invest more of their capital to expand their business. … We’ve got to focus not only on the rat race of going out and recruiting new industry to come into Mississippi, but also taking those existing businesses and ensuring that we’re creating an environment which encourages them to build and expand their workforce.”
AP: Neither the governor nor the Joint Legislative Budget Committee recommends raises for state employees. Should the employees ever expect to get a raise?
Reeves: “I think there’s an awful lot of employees out there that deserve more compensation for what they do. And I think you’ll find that there are an awful lot of state employees out there that have received raises in the past. … Some of the very same agency heads that complain about the amount of monies they receive, how they’re going to have to shut down their agency or fire employees are the very same ones, perhaps, that are giving significant raises to their employees. And I’m not talking about 2 and 3 percent raises here. I’m talking in terms of larger, significant dollar amounts to their employees. … I’m not saying that giving raises is always bad, but what we like to see is if you’re giving raises — and it’s harder for smaller agencies, I’m really looking at the bigger agencies — if you’re going to reward employees for doing a good job and therefore find ways to cut expenses in other areas of your budget, then that’s justified. But where I think we have problems is when all expenses are going up and agency heads are giving raises.”