By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant offered an expansive and diverse set of initiatives and goals during his first State of the State speech Tuesday night on the south steps of the Capitol on a mild winter’s night.
In a 32-minute speech during an unusual outdoor joint session of the Legislature, the Republican governor added specifics to many of last year’s campaign themes and added some new policy initiatives.
“My friends, now is the time to build together,” he said. “…I call on every Mississippian, no matter what our race or region or party, to rise above our petty differences and build together the Mississippi our citizens deserve. Let us go forward from this time and place, unafraid to make the bold changes that will help us to rise together.”
The speech is normally held in the Mississippi House chamber. But since Bryant’s inaugural was moved inside earlier this month because of rain, the State of State was moved outside to use the massive platforms and podium built for the inaugural.
There was speculation that rain was moving into central Mississippi, and would force the State of the State inside the Capitol, but it remained dry throughout the 45-minute ceremony attended by legislators, most statewide elected officials, statewide judiciary and Bryant’s family members and supporters.
Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, the House minority leader, in a response, called on legislation to prevent the governor from making wholesale pardons as Haley Barbour did in his final days in office. Moak added his call for unity, saying, “Our shared economic difficulties have been well documented. Unemployment has afflicted every county in our state and the challenges of underemployment have left their mark on most every Mississippi family. We cannot afford to answer these challenges with cynicism and political infighting.”
Speaker Phil Gunn, R-Clinton, said he looked forward to working with Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on the challenges presented in the State of the State speech. When asked specifically about Bryant’s proposal to consolidate “non-educational duties of school districts…to one central county office by 2014,” Gunn said he had not heard the proposal before and would have to know more about it.
That proposal might have been one of Bryant’s more controversial. He also voiced support for legislation to encourage more charter schools and for developing a program to pay teachers for performance.
“It is time we started paying (teachers) for quality not longevity,” he said.
He also endorsed level funding for education in what is expected to be another tight budget year.
Bryant discussed the dyslexia he struggled with as a child and said, “reading must be at the forefront of our educational plan.”
In the area of health care, Bryant said medical zones could be created in certain cities in the state with large medical complexes, to provide tax incentives to create additional health care-related jobs. Tupelo has been cited as a possible location for the medical zones.
He urged Mississippians to “do a better job with our individual health care.” Bryant said he would lead by example by hosting an annual 5-kilometer run at the Governor’s Mansion each summer.
Improving the health of the state’s citizens, who are as a whole the nation’s least healthy, and reducing the teenage pregnancy rate, also the nation’s worst, were two prominent goals stated by the new governor Tuesday. He said he is asking the departments of Health and Human Services to develop a strategy to reduce the teen pregnancy rate and called on the passage of legislation to mandate suspected instances of child abuse to be reported to law enforcement.
“Any adult male who fathers a child with a teenage mother under the age of consent should be sought out and prosecuted as a sexual predator,” he said. “Every father should know the taxpayers are not responsible for his children.”
Rep. Charles Young Jr., D-Meridian, said of the speech, “I think he addressed a lot of issues we have had for a long time…If the Legislature cooperates with the spirit of the direction the governor pointed of us in, I think Mississippi is going to be a much better place.”