November 21, 2012 5:41:52 PM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
EDITOR'S NOTE: Columbus native Terry Brown, the Pro Tempore of the Mississippi Senate, has served in the state legislature since 1988 -- a part-time job requiring full-time energy, as he describes it. Before heading back to Jackson, where he will serve a key role as the state puts together its budget, Brown took some time to meet with Dispatch reporter Jeff Clark for a wide-ranging conversation:
How did you feel about last week's budget talks?
"We ended up last week with a $5.4 billion budget. We have about a 1.4-percent increase, so that's about another $118 million in general funds. When I say general funds, it means money that is created in the state. You have general funds, special funds and federal funds, which are pretty small except for Medicaid. We really have a $17 billion to $18 billion budget, but we only have control of $5.4 billion."
Two of the more important issues in the budget are health care and education. Let's talk Medicaid.
"When I first got elected (to the Mississippi House of Representatives) in 1988, I was put on the House Appropriations Committee and they put me on the Medicaid subcommittee. I didn't know the difference between Medicaid and Medicare.
"Medicaid is a match program between the state and the feds. We have one of the highest matches in the country. We get $3 for every dollar we spend.
"In 1988, we were squirming and crawling to get $22 million in Medicaid match funds -- I remember it like it was yesterday. We decided we would never let our match get over $25 million. Last year, our part of the match was $771 million. This year, it's $980 million. It's the 800-pound gorilla in the room -- that and education.
"About 63 percent of our budget is going toward education. When you take the Medicaid match and education out of the budget, there's not a lot left. It's a challenge."
Like funding the budgets for our state prisons? Aren't they about $30 million short of their budget?
"It's actually closer to $33 million. Look, if you take a 22-year-old kid and send him to prison, he's going to be a sure enough criminal when he gets out. I didn't vote for the (mandatory) 85-percent time-served bill when it came up in the 90's. (Former Gov.) Haley (Barbour) knew it was a bad idea and we voted to do away with it.
"I was talking to (Mississippi Department of Corrections Director) Chris Epps last week. He said we need to quit incarcerating these kids over this petty little drug stuff. He thinks we need to start using more house arrests and I agree with him. Once your ass gets caught and they plaster your picture in The Dispatch, that's a good bit of punishment right there. Put them on house arrest. You tell them, 'Partner, this is what you are going to do. We're going to strap an ankle bracelet on your ass and you're going to be home every night and then on the weekends, 'You're going to report to the jail house and you're going to pick up trash and then go home on Sunday night. If you have a job, you can go to your job. But for the next year, that's what you are going to do.'
"We also need to have a drug court. We have to get it out of the circuit court. It's going to cost a little, but it would save us so much. It costs us $31,000 to support a prisoner for one year. Even with privatized prisons, the number remains the same. We are in a lawsuit every day because the prisoners don't think they are being treated fairly ... There's always a lawsuit."
Regarding education, you're going to throw $3 billion at something that statistically isn't working?
"It ain't working, no sir.
"We got beat on (charter school legislation) last year, but we are going to come with charter schools. Is it going to work? I can't promise you that. I have had two superintendents ask me, 'Brown, do you support charter schools?' and I said, 'I most certainly do.' They asked me why and I said I had no idea. It doesn't matter because what we are doing right now ain't working. I'm just for trying something different."
Columnist Charlie Mitchell recently raised the question: How do we keep charter schools from becoming segregated public schools?
"That doesn't cross my mind. I don't think it's going to be that way. It's just one of those things and if it happens, we'll have to address it at the time. But we have to do something. What we are doing right now flat is not working.
"I think Mississippi has one of the best community college systems in the country, bar none. When they come out of there, they are ready to go to work somewhere. And job creation has got to be the ultimate thing. Nothing is going to drive this economy except jobs. But jobs aren't coming where the workforce can't be trained. Our community colleges have filled this void.
"But back to charter schools, if it doesn't work there ain't nothing on the books we can't take off."
Speaking of job creation, how do you feel about the latest Silicor delay? Do you think the company will get going in Lowndes County?
"Oh, I definitely think the project is going to happen, I really do.
"I know (Silicor backer John Correnti) well and he was in New York last week meeting with the Hudson Energy Group, which is the parent company of Silicor. They are very well funded and a large conglomerate.
"You know, part of their money is coming from Europe and you know about what's going on over there. The money's committed but they can't put their hands on it. I have no doubt it will happen.
"I understand deadlines, but (Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Link CEO) Joe Max Higgins will know what to do."
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Lowndes County?
"That's a hard question to answer because we are pretty much meeting most of our challenges,
But education is the big boy in the room. If we could get all of our schools operating on at least a "C" level, it would be great. We don't need an "A" school here and three "F" schools over there, because it ain't working. We don't have to be perfect, but we can definitely improve."