By Gresham Kay
This is the second of four articles Humane Pursuits will run on state politics.
Mississippi is a state with a population which barely rivals that of Dallas, Texas, yet a state with influence surpassing its perhaps humble appearance. Governor Haley Barbour, once a powerful lobbyist in Washington and now head of the Republican Governor’s Association, has set the tone for fiscal responsibility in Jackson over the last twelve months. Last year, he kept the legislature in session until members finally succumbed to his version of the state budget. With this spring’s legislative session well underway, the story has been the same.
While legislators are currently taking a break for a couple of weeks before returning to pass the 2011 budget, they have already allowed the governor to further whittle down the current year’s budget while addressing some other hot-button issues such as charter schools.
For the third year in a row, the Senate passed a charter schools bill. Yes, while Mississippi is dead last in the public school rankings and neighboring states such as Arkansas and Louisiana (see New Orleans) are already experimenting successfully with charter schools, Mississippi has yet to pass legislation enabling the creation of this innovative form of public schools. After a fierce debate in the House this session, where the resistance from the black caucus has weakened compared to previous years but remains strong, the once-charter school bill was amended to become a watered-down education bill with little value in the eyes of conservatives. The proponents of charter schools will have to wait for another session to achieve passage of their bill.
America’s economy may be slowly improving nationwide, yet Mississippi according to a recent Clarion-Ledger editorial moves into recessions slowly and exits recessions in the same manner. In concocting the 2011 budget, at least two issues face legislators in the coming weeks. One, the state could face a $1.4 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year, which is significant given that the usual annual budget is somewhere around $6 billion. And two, there is no guarantee of more stimulus money flowing from Washington to cushion state expenditures. School districts, public universities, and other areas of state government, then, will face further scrutiny.
Mississippi is a place steeped in history. Much of Jackson was burned during the Civil War (or War between the States), as federal troops broke through artillery lines set up not far from the state capitol. The state has witnessed massive social upheaval before, be it in the days of Reconstruction or the 1960s. Therefore, some tightening of the fiscal belt in 2011 is not likely to faze Mississippians.