January 22, 2014 10:16:38 AM
Thanks to the Stennis-Capitol Press Forum, I was able to receive a briefing on the current Legislative session from both the leaders of the Mississippi House and the Senate.
The Stennis-Capitol Forum meets at the Capital Club on the 19th floor of the Capital Towers Building, 125 South Congress St. The public is invited. Lunch is $20. Their website has more info.
It is a true blessing to live in a country where all a citizen has to do is show up for lunch, pay $20 and get a report from its top leaders on the latest government initiatives. We have an open, accessible government.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn are impressive leaders. They have achieved their positions because they are smart and hardworking.
Things are different since the Republicans have been in power. For one thing, financial prudence has been the name of the game. Both Reeves and Gunn said they are committed to righting the state's financial ship.
One big issue is the use of "one-time money" for recurring expenses. This has plagued the state to the point that it could hurt our credit rating. The Legislature, under the Republicans, has made significant headway and should eliminate this sloppy practice within the next year or two.
Reeves noted that he and Gunn "agree on the vast majority of issues that are coming before the Mississippi Senate."
Reeves was decidedly more prudent than Gunn, reflecting the Senate's more conservative composition. Reeves told the crowd that anybody looking for more spending would be disappointed.
"As I look around the crowd today, I feel like the huge crowd that's here is in anticipation of there being a lot of additional money to spend in state government and I'm here to tell you that you are probably going to be disappointed," Reeves said.
In contrast, Gunn mentioned the possibility of pay raises for teachers, and perhaps other state employees, if funds were available.
Reeves mentioned the possibility of allowing charter schools to recruit students across district lines. Gunn, in contrast, said he didn't have the votes to make that happen in the House.
Reeves talked quite a bit about how the state's bond debt is coming down and should continue falling with fewer bond authorizations in the works. This is Reeves' sweet spot - fiscal responsibility.
Reeves made mention of the disagreement with the governor over funding for the Highway Patrol. "There seems to be a disconnect between the administrators on the fifth floor and what's best for troopers and that's why you have seen such hard questioning from Speaker Gunn and myself."
As an example, Reeves pointed out the Legislature gave the Highway Patrol $2 million for the purchase of new automobiles, but the patrol only spent $600,000 on vehicles, 12 of which were motorcycles.
Reeves said, "We are looking for agencies that spend their tax dollars efficiently and spend them in a way that maximizes the scarce resources that we all have."
Both Gunn and Reeves mentioned "performance-based budgeting." This is the theory of budgeting based on achieving specific goals rather than just renewing the previous year's budget.
"Performance-based budgeting is complicated and hard," Reeves said. "Mississippi passed it in the early 1990s. It is the law of the land, but nothing has really been done in 25 years. It's not going to happen overnight, but we are making real progress."
Gunn talked more about teacher pay raises. He noted that it has been seven years since teachers have had a pay raise and Mississippi teacher compensation is significantly below surrounding states. Gunn told a story about how DeSoto teachers were driving 30 minutes into Memphis because Tennessee salaries were $10,000 higher.
"We have too much support, too much bureaucracy. We've got to get the money in the classroom," Gunn said.
"I am a firm believer the overwhelming majority of the teachers in this state are good," Gunn said. "There is a large pool of teachers out there doing their best, doing their jobs and they haven't had a raise in seven years."
Gunn acknowledged his support for merit pay but said nobody knows how to determine which teachers are good and which are bad. "I don't want to pay bad teachers, but I don't know who they are. If you know, bring me a list and I won't pay them. The problem is today we don't know who they are."
Gunn discussed his support for gearing our educational system to encourage students to enter in-demand trades such as welding and plumbing. He said his plumber makes almost as much per hour as he does as an attorney. He said Ingalls Shipyard can't find enough welders.
Both Gunn and Reeves mentioned the task force on criminal justice reform and the need to control exploding incarceration costs. After years of locking up criminals to control crime, the trend is moving back the other way. Expect to see more parole and more prison bracelet house arrest programs.
Not a single word was mentioned by either on expanding Medicaid and accepting a billion dollars in federal money. As long as Reeves and Gunn are in power, that's not likely to happen.