JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant says he’s proposing a “Taxpayer Works Agenda” for the 2015 legislative session, including an income-tax cut for people with low to moderate earnings, a boost in tourism advertising, scholarships for community college students and a pay raise for Highway Patrol troopers.
Bryant, a Republican, is seeking a second term in 2015. He sat down with The Associated Press last week for an interview about the three-month session, which begins Tuesday.
AP: Critics say your tax cut plan would give money back to people when the economy is doing well but not when the economy is struggling. How do you respond?
Bryant: “I look at is as the dividend idea. The idea that when we have that additional revenue, rather than putting it into the general fund to spend it, we would return that to the taxpayers. I’m certainly not offended if the Legislature would like to remove those restrictions.”
AP: Some other Republican-led states are expanding Medicaid. Will you change your mind and consider expansion, especially given the financial difficulties some hospitals are facing?
Bryant: “Not at all… If you remember, when the Affordable Care Act went into effect, it in essence removed the disproportionate share payments (which cover some hospitals expenses for providing uncompensated care) for Medicare and Medicaid…. I believe that in a Republican-led (U.S.) House and Senate, you’re going to see an effort to restore Medicare DSH payments and Medicaid DSH payments for hospitals. I’m going to encourage our delegation to help do that…. We still hear discussions of the Affordable Care Act being completely done away with…. To bring the state of Mississippi into a system that is going to have substantial changes would just be ill-advised at this time.”
AP: Mississippi has persistently had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. What needs to be done?
Bryant: “Two years ago at the Neshoba County Fair, I said my goal for unemployment in Mississippi is 7.5 percent…. Well, we are at 7.3 percent now. So, from (10.4 percent) the month before I took office to 7.3 percent now — it is an improvement…. There are roughly 34,000 jobs available in Mississippi today…. We’ve got to find the skilled workforce to fill them. And that’s the challenge — to go and find people who can complete a career program within high school, who can go to a community college or go on to (a university) and be prepared for the advance manufacturing jobs of the future.”
AP: Poverty is one Mississippi’s most difficult challenges. How do you improve conditions?
Bryant: “We’ve got a lot of families that have no father in the home, that have for three generations have never seen a parent come home from work. We have failing school systems. We’re not trying to place blame on anyone, but there are failing school districts in areas where they are needed the most… We’re going to ask the Legislature to remove any winnings at a casino from a parent who may owe child support. So you won’t be going around gambling and winning at the dice table and not taking care of your children…. Every time we think we have a government program to solve it, it doesn’t seem to work properly. What will work is the restoration of the family system, adequate schools and job opportunities for every student that has the ability to fill those jobs.”
AP: And speaking of adequate schools, why not fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the budget formula that was put into law in 1997?
Bryant: “I don’t think it would make any difference. I don’t think that formula will get us where we want to be…. Republicans are very willing to fund things that work in education. We are unwilling to put money into a formula that has not proven to be effective and that appears to increase the administrative expenditures more than the classroom…. We’re willing to give a $100 million teacher pay raise. We’re certainly willing to put money into charter schools and to scholarship programs for children who want to become teachers. We are willing to put money into educational systems that work. What we are being asked to do is to take a formula from the 1990s and fully fund it and hope that it works.”
AP: Why not just repeal MAEP, then?
Bryant: “I’m not sure there’s the political will to do that. I think you might look at some consideration of amending it.”
AP: A law you signed in 2012, which would have required hospital privileges for doctors at the state’s only abortion clinic, is blocked by federal courts. Are you proposing any abortion regulations in 2015?
Bryant: “We will see what the courts say about that before you see any additional proposals. But, certainly, I am open to any other legislation that would reduce abortion in Mississippi.”
AP: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January will hear arguments about Mississippi’s state law and voter-approved state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A federal judge overturned the ban, writing that his decision was based on equal protection under the U.S. Constitution — if the state allows straight couples to marry, then it ought to provide the same recognition to gay couples. What do you think?
Bryant: “I’m probably not an expert in the constitutional arguments before the court. But what I will say is I understand the people of the state of Mississippi spoke clearly through a constitutional amendment…. Any governor’s oath of office is to protect the constitution, and that’s what I intend to do.”