By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Republican Gov.-elect Phil Bryant on Thursday asked businesspeople, lobbyists, legislators and state agency leaders to help him shape an agenda for Mississippi’s 2012 legislative session.
“I want to be the big idea governor,” Bryant told more than 200 people during a policy meeting at the Marriott hotel in downtown Jackson, a few blocks from the Capitol.
Bryant, 57, of Brandon, is ending one term as lieutenant governor. He was elected governor Nov. 8 and takes office at noon Jan. 10, succeeding Republican Haley Barbour, who couldn’t seek a third term.
Bryant told those at the policy meeting that Mississippi should expand medical services, increase energy production, strengthen its manufacturing base and reduce its teen pregnancy rate.
“We can do remarkable things. I didn’t work so hard and come so far, with the grace of God, to say, ‘Let’s be mediocre,'” Bryant said.
Mark Garriga, an attorney who served as chief of staff for Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice in the 1990s, is on Bryant’s transition team. He said some of the participants in Thursday’s policy meeting had pulled him aside and asked whether the meeting was truly designed to generate ideas.
“Let me assure you, this is not a political exercise,” Garriga said. “This is an intellectual exercise. We really need your help. We really need your brainpower.”
As lieutenant governor, Bryant has spoken often about making state government more open and accountable. He was instrumental in putting video cameras in the Senate chamber so debates could be shown on the legislative website.
However, Bryant’s transition team originally said that only the opening session of Thursday’s meeting would be open to the public and the media. During a news conference after the opening session, Bryant was asked why the work sessions were being held behind closed doors.
“No one was turned away that might have wanted to be a part of this. But at some point you just have to say a couple hundred is about all we can financially and organizationally manage,” Bryant said.
He also said reporters and photographers were welcome to attend any work session. A group discussing education met in a locked room, but the doors were opened after reporters knocked. Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock later said the group did not intentionally lock the doors.
The education group discussed ideas Bryant mentioned frequently during the gubernatorial campaign: spending money in classrooms instead of offices; creating charter schools that can adopt more flexible academic approaches and operating hours; strengthening the leadership skills of principals; emphasizing high-tech skills; and making college more affordable.
Charles McClelland, the state Board of Education chairman, led the education work group. Outside the meeting, he said Mississippi needs to improve its academic standing in national rankings.
“I want to see the needle of education come off the bottom,” McClelland said.
The health care group discussed ways to train and keep more medical professionals in Mississippi, which is one of the poorest, unhealthiest states in the nation. Leaders at the state’s only medical school, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, want to enroll more students and provide more training, but lawmakers have said that might be difficult to do during tight budget times.
Bryant said the participants in the policy meeting were a “very diverse group.” With more than 200 people in the opening session, about three dozen were black and most were men. Mississippi’s population is about 37 percent black and 51 percent female.
Bryant said his transition team invited people who expressed interest in participating, either through phone calls or through the transition website. Bullock said about 300 people participated at different points during the day.
“Anyone that called that said, ‘I’d like to be on a committee’ (had) an opportunity to be on a committee,” Bryant said.