Governor touts jobs, education needs

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant touted his education proposals to be considered during the current legislative session and the economic accomplishments of the last year during his second State of the State speech Tuesday.
Bryant asked legislators to “work in good faith with me on items both easy and hard, and I will pledge to you to do the same. We are a state of great people, who are confident in a promising future.”
The Republican governor, speaking in the House chamber of the Capitol to an early evening joint legislative session, urged legislators to pass his Education Works agenda, which includes more school choice, an emphasis on having students reading and doing math on grade level, merit pay for teachers and scholarships to attract top students to the teaching profession.
“Our very economic stability as a state is threatened if our education system is not improved,” said Bryant, who spoke for about 40 minutes and was interrupted numerous times by applause, including a standing ovation by many Republicans when he said, “When a good charter school bill reaches my desk, I intend to sign it.”
The governor also said 2,700 new jobs were announced last year, his first as governor. He highlighted many of those jobs announcements, including Caterpillar in Alcorn County, General Atomics in Tupelo, FNC in Oxford, and Comfort Revolution in Tishomingo County.
In total, he said the more than 15 expansions or new facilities will invest more than $500 million in the local economies.
The governor also made news with the announcement that Ashley Furniture will expand in Verona, creating another 60 jobs.
Ashley Board Chair Ron Wanek, who lives in Florida, watched the governor’s speech from the House gallery and afterward said in part the expansion is because “Mississippi is a good, friendly place to do business.” (For more on the Ashley expansion, see the story on Page 11A.)
The governor said other business expansion projects are being pursued.
“Tonight I call on you to make sure the world knows Mississippi will not take a back seat to anyone when it comes to attracting jobs,” he said.
“It was a great speech,” said Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie. “I liked all the points he made about jobs, education … I think he has a strong agenda.”
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said he liked the governor’s proposal to provide scholarships to attract high academic achievers to the teaching profession.
“I agree that education is the key,” Reynolds said.
But Reynolds said he opposed other parts of the governor’s proposals.
For instance, Bryant reiterated his opposition to expanding Medicaid as part of the federal Affordable Care Act to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level of about $15,000 annually.
“We should be compassionate by lowering our Medicaid population through economic growth, personal responsibility and providing more access to private sector health care,” Bryant said.
He announced the creation of a Health Care Solutions Institute to to serve as a catalyst for making health care “an economic driver.” Clay Hays, a Jackson cardiologist, will serve as chair of the group.
Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, responded that “the majority of people who would be eligible for health coverage through Medicaid expansion already have a job. Medicaid expansion will create 9,000 jobs and remains a critical economic and public health opportunity for our state.”
Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens said in the Democratic response that the state fell back into recession last year while most other states and the nation were growing because the Republican majority focused on other issues, such as immigration legislation, instead of focusing on jobs.
As usual, the annual speech was carried live on public television and radio and many of the state’s elected officials, from all three branches of government, attended.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com