Mississippi State of the State: Improving the Improvements

In his seventh State of the State address on January 9, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant proclaimed that Mississippi is on the rise and celebrated his administration’s success in achieving  government reforms and pro-growth tax cuts.

The governor noted the state’s unemployment rate —which fell to 4.8 percent in November – is “the lowest since unemployment levels began to be recorded in 1979.” As further evidence of improving economic conditions, Gov. Bryant cited the more than 60,000 new jobs of recent years, along with the billions of dollars of foreign and domestic investments flowing into the state. In particular, the governor touted Milwaukee Tool’s new 660 job addition to their already 1,400-person advanced manufacturing team, representing $33.4 million in business investment. He also recognized many other multi-million dollar investments in the state linked to thousands of new jobs. Invoking Ronald Reagan’s famous saying that “the best social program is a job,” Bryant revealed that there are more than 40,000 jobs looking for hardworking Mississippians to occupy them.

Moving on to education, Governor Bryant proudly announced that for the first time in state history, the high school graduation rate rose above 80 percent. Further, more than 90 percent of third-graders passed reading exams. The governor chided the media for generally failing to acknowledge these significant improvements.  Gov. Bryant also reminded listeners his administration enacted teacher pay raises, expanded education choice by allowing charter schools, and improved educational quality for those with learning difficulties. He further reaffirmed his support for updating the education funding formula and expanding school choice. Both of these reforms have a strong history of improving educational achievement and outcomes.

Bryant observed that “there seem to be two Mississippis occupying the same time and space…the proverbial critics would have you believe that one is a declining state whose people are suffering mightily. They search for problems as if there is a reward for finding them…Fortunately, the other Mississippi is filled with progress.”

Gov. Bryant’s bemoaned that “Mississippians are our own worst enemy,” citing rampant obesity, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. With hopeful optimism, the governor assured listeners that he and lawmakers are committed to finding ways to improve medical care for the sick and mentally ill, improving and incentivizing preventative care and lifestyle education, and saving taxpayers money on Medicaid spending. The governor went on to praise the work of his opioid epidemic task force, calling their policies and regulation recommendations for restricting prescriptions “courageous and compassionate.”

Mississippi is beginning to see positive results related to the tax reforms of 2016—including individual income tax reductions and a gradual phasing out of the franchise tax. After dropping from 10th to 22nd over five years in the Rich States, Poor States economic outlook rankings, these steps at reform are welcomed. But much need for reform remains. Mississippi’s public pension system remains desperately underfunded, ranking 47th nationally. Irresponsible, retroactive increases in cost-of-living adjustments to their outdated defined-benefit system have made the status quo unsustainable. A move to defined-contribution or a hybrid system, combined with committing to fully fund the pension every year will put the Hospitality State back on track. Prosperity and opportunity will be within reach of every hardworking Mississippian if lawmakers continue with pro-growth tax and budget reforms, as well as needed pension reform.