Northeast Mississippi legislators meeting Wednesday with the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi said little about Gov. Barbour’s budget-reduction proposals and more about continuing regional needs and priorities like education and adequate highways.
The annual meeting with legislators at the Advanced Education Center on the University of Mississippi/Itawamba Community College campus in Tupelo brought together elected officials and civic leaders from 16 counties. Report updates on regional goals led to non-partisan, open-floor discussion of the issues facing the region and the state.
Highways, a decades-long priority regionwide, continues at or near the top of the needs list within the region’s delegation. Slow movement in building authorized highways in the Vision 21 four-laning program, enacted in 2002, remains a thorny issue because all or part of Mississippi Highways 15, 25, 9, 7 and 41 fall into the highest priority category, but work has been scarce because funds aren’t available.
Some legislators indicated support for a state-backed bond program to ramp-up construction statewide, and we hope that is considered. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, noted that interest rates remain at historic lows and unemployment is at historic highs. He said infrastructure construction historically has been an effective way to create jobs while building long-term investments. Bryan, questioned afterward about a possible but not yet proposed federal infrastructure program, said Mississippi could expect to receive about 1 percent from any nationwide construction initiative.
Legislators also seemed generally supportive of pre-kindergarten education – the crucial earliest years when brain development is most active. Mississippi doesn’t have a statewide pre-K program, but a pilot project called Mississippi Building Blocks is operating in selected communities, with data to be used in guiding pre-K planning.
The greater encouragement came from a report on use of community college tuition-guarantee programs in some counties and school districts. Commission coordinator and CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield said 28 of 31 school districts in the region will have some form of tuition guarantee operating at the beginning of the 2010 fall semester.
This year, 303 tuition scholarships have been awarded for students attending Northeast, Northwest, Itawamba, and East Central community colleges. Whitfield said he hopes applications will increase to 2,000 per year. The scholarships have averaged $498 per student. The scholarship guarantee kicks in after other funding sources have been sought and awarded.
The meeting brought forward instances of progress besting the general economy, which is a goal of regionalism.
NEMS Daily Journal