Friday, January 29, 2016

A State of the State that doesn’t add up

Regardless of how many times you say something, it does not make that statement true – even if you say it to the entire legislature, media and citizens of the state.

In his 2016 State of the State address, Governor Phil Bryant said the following:
“We now face a new year where I am able to inform the people and the duly elected members of the House and Senate – the state of the state in Mississippi is sound.”

Of course, he had to immediately brush off the fact that revenue projections were not met this year causing mid-year budget cuts along with a raiding of the rainy day fund. And revenue projections for next year are already down. Add to this the jobless rate INCREASING from 6% to 6.4% in the month of December (and still remaining much higher than the national rate of 5%). Even the Republican legislature’s best friend ALEC said our economy is terrible (though not the worst) ranking us 41st out of 50 on whatever arbitrary scale they produced.

ALEC is not the only group to give us a poor ranking on our economy, and Education Week is not the only group to name us 49th in the country for our abysmal education system. And while we might be “sound” because we have more money than is necessary in our rainy day fund for the future lack of revenue, nothing has improved in the lives or everyday Mississippians in the last four years – not benefits, not access to healthcare, not education, not job opportunities. It would be unfair to say pay hasn’t increased – from 2010 to 2014 the median household income did increase $273, allowing us to maintain our spot at 50th in the nation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Champion for Public Education?

Rep. Jay Hughes, the Freshman Representative from Oxford, has made a splash at the start of this session doing something truly outrageous...keeping his promise.

Hughes was one of the bright spots for Democrats this November, and his platform that resonated in Lafayette County was a simple one: "It All Starts With Education."

Just today, Hughes began by calling out Republican House Leadership and Governor Bryant on MPB, and by the end of the evening his response to the State of the State was gathering major steam on social media. If you haven't seen it yet, you can check it out here:


Thursday, January 7, 2016

What To Expect: Republicans Fighting the Unarmed Union Army

This is Part 4 of a series this week of what to expect from the Mississippi Legislature this session.

Republican leadership in Mississippi and the rest of the country has a deep fear of unions. Leaders in our state have been doing everything they can to prevent them from forming (i.e. the Nissan plant in Canton), and around the country, they’ve been taking every opportunity to destroy and destabilize unions. It’s not that they fear some sort of criminal element developing from unions – what they fear is their friends not making every possible cent off the backs of hard working Mississippians. 

But an interesting article in the Washington Post in December highlighted the not only the day-to-day issues families in low-wage manufacturing jobs are facing, but the clearly laid out tactic of corporations to capitalize on the unskilled and poorly educated workforce in the South. 

These companies go to rural areas with staggeringly high unemployment rates and make promises of pay and good fortune. Of course, the state has to offer insane incentive packages that clearly benefit the company and not the state or workers.

And what happens when these promises and pay don’t materialize, and people working 40 hours a week at a manufacturing job have to live on welfare or lose their job if they become injured or are really never hired by the company because they’ve been employed through a temp agency for a full-time job? 

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

We’ve seen it for years at the Nissan plant in Canton, and the Washington Post article highlights the issues facing other rural areas. But, people are taking a stand. They want to be paid a good wage to earn their two cars and a boat. I’m sure Republicans will do everything they can to prevent it, but when the National Labor Relations Board calls you out for violations, your company is not on the right path. 

What may prove to be even more interesting in these labor and wage issues, as well as development of new jobs, is how it ties in to all these promised tax breaks to businesses, which Republican leadership swears we can 1) afford, 2) will produce more jobs and better pay for Mississippians. But, I wonder what Wal-Mart will do with it’s newly saved inventory tax dollars – will they hire more workers, pay them better, or offer everyone health insurance? Or, will they pocket it and continue raking in the profits?

Casting lots with loaded dice

With the legislature reconvening in Jackson this week, we will finally get an answer to one of the biggest question marks of the 2015 cycle, as the House will decide whether to seat incumbent Rep. Bo Eaton or his Republican challenger Mark Tullos. In case you haven't been keeping up with state house races or high-stakes games of pick-up sticks, we wanted to give you a quick timeline of events leading up to this decision.

November 4 : The morning after the election, it appeared that Tullos had bested Eaton by the slimmest of margins. Six votes separated the Republican from Eaton, and it looked like the longtime representative was going to be another casualty in a not-so-great night for Democratic incumbents.

November 12: "It ain't over 'til it's over." The week after the election, Smith County finished counting the remaining affidavit ballots; of the twelve that were counted, three went to Tullos and nine went to Eaton, bringing the two candidates to a tie at 4,589 votes each. In much the same manner the Apostles chose who would succeed Judas Iscariot, state law dictates that in the case of a tie, the election "shall be determined by lot."

(Side note: If we have to use a Biblical example for determining the race, I would much rather go with the Solomon route: we say we're going to cut the district in half and give each candidate one piece, and whoever objects is obviously the true representative.)

Tullos was quoted as saying, "I'm not going to agree to a coin flip. I don't want to bet my future on the flip of a coin." Luckily for Tullos, it would not be a coin flip that determined his future; instead, the candidates would draw straws to determine the winner.

November 20: Much like King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, Bo Eaton pulled the long, green straw from the bag and officially won the seat in a ceremony overseen by both Governor Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. Tullos was in attendance. The law--as weird as it was--had been followed, and the race was over.

November 21: Never mind. Tullos was fine with drawing straws until he lost; I guess he didn't realize how close it would be to a coin toss. Since the House of Representatives has the authority to seat its own members, a committee appointed by Speaker Philip Gunn would decide the winner.

The law had been followed every step of the way, and Bryant and Hosemann both signed off on it. Surely, the panel would be fair and listen to both sides before making an informed, non-partisan decision. Right?



This image was added to the official roster of the Mississippi House of Representatives before the session began but was taken down because, you know, he hasn't actually won yet. For now, Bo Eaton is still officially the representative of House District 79. If this is any indication of Gunn and Co.'s plans, though, it is unlikely he'll be in the legislature for long. 



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What To Expect: Mississippi Roads and Bridges Falling Through the Cracks and Potholes

This is Part 3 of a series this week highlighting what to expect from the Mississippi Legislature this session.

For the past few years, legislative leaders and business leaders have been sounding the alarm at the deteriorating condition of Mississippi’s infrastructure. Article after article has highlighted the problems with our extensive network of state highways and bridges. It’s so bad that PEER is recommending an official chain of command to alert bus drivers and school districts of faulty bridges.

Last year seemed to be the year – this was it – the Mississippi Economic Council pounded the war drum and called on their legislative friends to make this happen. But, when Republicans realized they were going to have to raise the gas tax… gasp… during an election year… plans were curtailed to letting MEC has a study committee.

While many study committees become a place where ideas go to die, MEC has in fact “studied” the issue, and they are looking at the legislature to make it happen this year. Their plan includes making people who use the roads pay for the roads – in other words – a regressive increase in the gas tax. 

If this all comes to fruition through a gas tax increase (or some other tax or fee because there just isn’t money lying around to fix all the infrastructure needs), Republicans will have to vote for it. There will be no way to politically manipulate the situation as in year’s past and force the Democrats and safe Republicans to vote for it and then assault them in mail pieces come election time. 

In the meantime, safe driving. Watch for other cars, watch for animals, and watch for falling bridges.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What To Expect: A New Year, Same Tired Republican Excuses

This is Part 2 of a series this week highlighting what to expect from the Mississippi Legislature this session.

If the very calculated and well-funded defeat of Initiative 42 did not clearly spell out that the Republicans are not for the funding of a public education system, there is not much else we could say on this blog to prove this fact to you. 

The problem is, our education system needs an infusion of money. We can go round and round about where the money should come from, how it should be spent on kids and not administration, and on and on and on. But the fact remains, quality people and facilities cost money. Money that our schools do not have, as repeated over and over again during the Initiative 42 battle. Money that is needed – money to pay for teachers, money to pay for walls and roofs, money to pay for textbooks and working computers.

With all those big businesses and lobbyists and associations backing the anti-Initiative 42 on behalf of Gov. Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Speaker Gunn, all three are now beholden to them and their wish list of tax breaks and incentives for companies and businesses. 

Republicans have announced that they plan to fund K-12 at current levels. Which means, underfund K-12 for another year. Instead of coming up with a plan to generate revenue, or not cut more corporate taxes, Republicans are developing a plan to move the goal posts and change the MAEP formula so the same or less amount of money will magically fully-fund education. 

When looking at what’s going on around the country in terms of charter schools, it’s hard not to get cynical about the next four years for public education. Republicans have basically been setting up unrealistic goals for public schools or defunding schools to the point where they cannot meet basic standards (or a combination) in order to convert schools to “charter schools.” But don’t think of these schools as the ones fought over a few years back – these are for-profit institutions using state money to run schools. ALEC and their friends in Indiana have already developed model legislation that will surely make its way to Mississippi.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What to expect: Republicans Love Low Wages

As we enter the 2016 legislative session, Cottonmouth will be sharing a series of posts on what to expect. This is the first time the Republicans have held both chambers and the executive branch. We'll be focusing on a few issues early on, and we'll be watching as the session progresses. 

Mississippi workers don’t get paid very much. For the most part, the pay is less than less than very much. Most agencies have been decrying the problem for years, along with college leaders who are training Mississippians to go work in other states. Our Republican leadership has pretty much ignored the problem for the past 12 years, but there are two things that might bring it to the forefront in the next year.

First, prominent Republican-appointees are taking the issue to the media. MDOC head Marshall Fisher has been complaining about the poor pay rate and high turnover rate of correction officers since before his first day on the job. In interviews last week with the newly appointed foster-care head, Justice David Chandler criticized how social workers are paid less than teachers. While the legislature did find a way to raise teacher pay a few years ago, Mississippi teachers are still some of the lowest paid in the country. And yes, social workers are paid less than teachers – a lot less.

Second, the complete lack of income growth across the country (and, of course in our own state) will be a presidential issue next year. There is no avoiding the topic, as much as Republicans may want to. So far, no elected officials are making better pay their issue. For starters, in every agency, most of the pay rates for each job are so much lower than even our southern counterparts, it’s hard to even know where or how much to begin with – it’s really that bad. It’s easy for politicians and the state to get away with paying people less when they promote the retirement and healthcare benefits. However, the actual take home pay for most people, especially starting out is not anywhere equal to the dream of “two cars and a boat,” that Governor Bryant is touting with workforce training. Plus, most of these jobs (social workers, teachers) require a four-year college degree. So, not only are people taking home $1515/month*, but they also are probably paying off some sort of student loan.

Republicans might offer incremental raises to the lowest paid workers, or to MDOC officers and DHS workers, or some combination, but it’s doubtful they’ll be able to raise the pay to 1) attract quality candidates who will stay or 2) compete with other states’ pay rates. Perhaps, this will wait until 2019.

*Where this math came from: Entry level DHS job posting in Hinds County has a pay rate of $23,643. When entered into an online take-home pay calculator, without taking anything for retirement or additional medical insurance payments, and factoring this at the single and no dependents rate, take home pay was approximately $1515/month.

Monday, December 7, 2015

At least we're not 50th...

In case you needed more proof of the failure of the Bryant-Reeves administration, WTVA reported today that 24/7 Wall St. ranked Mississippi as the 48th best run state in the country:
To determine how well each state is managed, 24/7 Wall St. says it looked at key financial ratios and social and economic outcomes through information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, The Pew Research Center, The National Association of State Budget Officers, the FBI, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and more.
According to 24/7 Wall St.'s research, Mississippi has the ninth highest unemployment rate at 5.9 percent, the lowest median household income at $39,680 and the highest poverty rate at 21.5 percent.
It also says the population shrank from 2010 to 2014 as the state's workforce shrank by 5.4 percent.
This is not particularly shocking to anyone who has followed Mississippi's economic trajectory over the past few years. Nor will it be shocking when the legislature reconvenes next year and continues to push through policies that exacerbate all of these issues. In these inconsistent times, we can always count on our Republican leaders to keep the ship's wheel steady, no matter how close that iceberg gets.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be Good To One Another

Your friends at Cottonmouth are taking some time off during the holidays, but we will be back if a story breaks that we wish to share. Rest assured, we will return for the legislative session in January. While the political heat (hopefully) cools along with the temperatures this fall, it is important to remember why you are reading this post in the first place.

Cottonmouth is a forum designed to be a conduit of ideas that advances public discourse over a host of issues. Sure, many of us are guilty of using blogs to see who's up/who's down or who's right/who's wrong. There are some who do not agree with my viewpoints or the viewpoints of my co-authors, but that is part of the process. We can agree to disagree through fact-based discourse. I am thankful that we continue to have the opportunity to impact policy discussions. It is ultimately up to voters and policy makers to determine the best course of action as she or he sees the evidence.

Another year is about to conclude, but we still have time to enjoy 2015. As we gather with family and friends this holiday season, cherish the company you are blessed to have. Watch a football game. Go see a movie. Donate some time to a charity. Retell funny stories about a loved one. Live in the moment. Most of all, let's be good to one another.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Ties That Tie

Earlier today, Rep. Bo Eaton (D-Taylorsville) won the tie-breaker between him and his Republican challenger, Mark Tullos. Certified election results show each candidate receiving 5,489 votes. A document obtained by Cottonmouth shows that the results may be askew. A relative of Mr. Tullos - Mr. Jeffrey Tullos - has filed homestead exemption on property he owns in Rankin County. Yet, Jeffrey Tullos is voting in Smith County elections. So we have a situation where a voter voted in a county where he does not live. This would imply the type of ballot irregularities that Mark Tullos argued existed just this week; thus, the election was tied likely due to a voter improperly voting in favor of his brother, Mark Tullos.