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Biden’s federal appointments stall in Mississippi, other southern states

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Biden's federal appointments stall in Mississippi, other southern states

As enters his third year in office, Mississippi still lacks his appointments for two U.S. attorneys, two U.S. marshals and a federal judge in the northern district.

Biden made nominations for three of the positions in the fall, but Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith did not return “blue slips” — the longstanding by which home senators approve the president's picks before Senate confirmation hearings are held.

Biden will have to resubmit nominations to the new .

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One of the appointments in limbo is Todd Gee for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District. If confirmed, Gee will inherit the ongoing welfare fraud investigation, one of the largest public corruption cases in state history. He currently serves as the deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, which prosecutes cases of public corruption, such as bribery of public officials.

Three people connected to the fraud have pleaded guilty to federal charges and have agreed to aid the prosecution in its ongoing probe, which is unlikely to take further shape until a permanent U.S. attorney is in place.

While naming Gee in September, Biden also nominated Michael Purnell, lieutenant and executive officer of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, and Dale Bell, a professional protection officer in the private sector, to serve as the north and south U.S. marshals, respectively. Hyde-Smith and Wicker have not indicated whether they the nominations.

The president has not selected a U.S. attorney or a federal judge for the Northern District of Mississippi to replace U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills, who entered senior status in 2021.

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Biden, who received nearly 540,000 votes in Mississippi, has failed to fill many vacant federal positions across the South and in states with two Republican senators.

“It's more complicated now than it used to be,” said Trent Lott, Mississippi's U.S. senator from 1989 to 2007. “You have a Democratic president, you have two Republican senators, and you have a Democratic congressman, only one …The bottom line is, because you've got the divided , it's kind of slowing down things to a slow walk to up with people that the Democrats like that the senators can accept.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott remembers some of the issue differences he had with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a reception for House Majority Whip U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., in Jackson, Miss., Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. However, Lott also recalled how strong their friendship was, and how supportive McCain would be on common issues.

Lott recalled entering the Senate in the late 1980's and consulting longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who told the incoming senator, “Elections have consequences.”

Regardless of party affiliations, if the nominee is qualified, you should vote aye, Lott remembered Cochran saying.

“The atmosphere in Washington these days does not contribute to that kind of atmosphere, quite frankly. It's very, very partisan, very divided,” Lott said.

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The U.S. Southern District has lacked a U.S. attorney for much of the federal welfare investigation, which began when State Auditor Shad White turned over information gathered during his own investigation to federal authorities after making arrests in February of 2020. Former U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst resigned in January of 2021 and interim U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca has led the office since.

Another empty seat exists on the traditionally conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Appels, which covers Mississippi, and and represents the last step before an appeal reaches the . There are eight district court judge vacancies in these states, none of which has pending nominations.

Across the country there are 87 total judge vacancies and 23 pending nominations.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Education groups urge lawmakers to keep objective formula in place for school funding

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Several high-powered Mississippi public education groups sent a joint letter to lawmakers this stressing that any rewrite of the formula providing funds to local schools should be based on objective criteria.

The House leadership has proposed a completely new structure that would it to legislators to annually determine the base student cost. Under the current funding formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which the Senate is working to tweak but preserve, the base student cost is determined by an objective formula — not by politicians. The base student cost multiplied by enrollment equals the amount of money that school districts are supposed to receive, though more affluent districts receive less funding than do poorer districts.

READ MOREHouse leaders want lawmakers, not an objective formula, to determine ‘full funding' for public schools

The Feb. 20 letter, addressed to House Speaker Jason White, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the House and Senate education chairmen, and every lawmaker, was sent by:

  • The Mississippi Association of Educators.
  • The Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
  • The Mississippi Professional Educators.
  • The Mississippi Association of School Administrators.
  • The Parents' Campaign.

“We believe that a guiding principle in the of such (school funding formula) should be an understanding that the purpose … is to reflect the true cost of educating Mississippi children to a proficient level in core academic subjects and otherwise preparing them for in college and career,” the letter reads.

To achieve those goals, the letter continues, “essential components” of a formula should include “a base student cost determined by an objective formula. The base cost represents the cost to bring a typical student to academic proficiency as defined by state academic standards.” The formula also should include “an factor to account for increased operational costs to be applied in any year in which there is not a full recalculation of the formula.”

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The Senate Education Committee has passed legislation to make some changes to MAEP, but the Senate bill maintains the objective funding formula and preserves a growth factor, though at a level lower than the current level. Whether a compromise between the two chambers on the funding formula can be achieved could be one of the most contentious issues of the 2024 .

READ MORE: Senate committee passes bill to tweak but preserve MAEP, the public school funding formula

The letter from the education groups went on to say that a rewrite also should include additional funding for living in poverty, for special education students, for gifted students and for students learning English as a second language. The letter also advocates for more funds for career and technical education and to address teacher shortages in both geographic areas and in subject areas.

The letter advocated for “an equity provision” providing more state funding in poor districts and less state funding in more affluent districts.

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The bill that the Senate Education Committee passed this week would require more affluent districts to contribute more toward the base student cost, or toward the cost of providing an “adequate” education. The Senate bill would not make any adjustments to the amount of money going to poorer districts. But Senate say they hope to fully fund the formula, pumping an additional $215 million into the program providing more assistance to poorer districts, as it would all districts.

The House plan provides more money for various groups of students who might take more money to educate, such as poor students, special education students and English learners.

MAEP has been fully funded only twice since its implementation in 1997 — the last time in 2007.

READ MORECould this be the year political games end and MAEP is funded and fixed?

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi spends less on college grant aid than nearly every Southern state

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Mississippi spends less money on college financial aid programs than almost every state in the Southern region.

This holds true for both total dollars spent in Mississippi – about $45 million – and the average amount of grant money each college student receives. Other states, including deep-red neighbors Arkansas and Louisiana, dole out more money for college on a per-student basis while charging roughly the same or less for tuition. Even West Virginia, with close to half of the population, spends double Mississippi.

Not many lawmakers today know why this is, but several factors may be the cause: Financial aid policy is complex, and the tries to keep tuition low through funding the colleges and universities. Plus college financial aid is not a core function of , many lawmakers say, such as roads and bridges or paying teachers.

But a change may be underway this legislative . Amid increased interest in workforce development — not to mention Mississippi's $700 million surplus — lawmakers are no longer asking the state's financial aid office to make its programs less expensive.

Instead, they want to know: If Mississippi spends more, what will we get for it?

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“If you look at it, that student, their life is an economic development project,” said Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont. “If we can get them from $26,000 to $66,000 a year (in income), that's the most important economic development project in that person's life.”

Earlier this week, the agency responsible for Mississippi's college financial aid programs presented its new proposal to the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee that would pump $30 million into adult, part-time and many low-income who, by , have been ineligible for the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant since it was created nearly three decades ago. 

Depending on income, an estimated 37,000 students would get an additional $500 to $1,000 toward the cost of tuition. And, unlike past proposals, this one would be enacted without cuts to the only state grant program that helps low-income students pay for college. It has already passed the House Colleges and Universities Committee.

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The main question posed during the Senate meeting is how will Mississippi benefit from the increased funding. Though Mississippi's overall investment in financial aid would remain low, the proposal's price tag would nearly double what the state spends on helping students afford college, surpassing Alabama.

“Do we have metrics?,” asked Sen. Bart Williams, R-Starkville. “Can we show an ROI (return on investment)? We're talking … about all this including everybody. What are we getting from it?”

There is no data, responded Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Mississippi's Office of Student Financial Aid. Lawmakers have never required performance-based funding for the programs she administers.

But the research on state financial aid spending is clear.

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What research shows on college aid spending

Though not a cure-all, financial aid programs pay off in all the areas lawmakers want to tackle this session: College-going and completion rates, career-readiness and workforce development.

In general, college financial aid of any kind increases graduation rates. In Mississippi, research requested by OSFA found all three grant programs increased college graduation rates.

But exactly how much is typically a function of a student's income.

Because higher education costs money, financial aid that goes to students from families who can't afford to pay for college on their has been shown to yield greater results, said Tom Harnisch, the vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. It can be the difference between these students finding time to be involved on campus or working second jobs to pay for rent.

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“Those are the students that are really going to move the dial,” Harnisch said.

For every $1,000 of grant aid spent on low-income students, research has shown college retention rates increase between 1 and 5%. In Florida, an additional $1,300 in need-based aid increased six-year graduation rates by nearly a quarter. In , a grant program for low-income students was found to have freed 75 to 84 hours they would have spent working their first two years. For first-time students who receive a full federal Pell Grant, each additional $1,000 increase in grant aid is associated with more than $1,000 increase in earnings four years after enrollment.

When states spend more on financial aid, more students pursue higher education. Community colleges in particular see an increase in enrollment.

Sandy Baum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied Mississippi's financial aid programs, said the new proposal would be an improvement on MTAG's current structure because it would direct more dollars to students who can't afford to pay for college on their own.

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“Of course Mississippi needs to spend more,” Baum said.

Other states have dramatically increased financial aid spending, the Urban Institute has found. After Arkansas legalized a lottery in 2008 and used it to fund college scholarships, the state's spending on financial aid increased by $100 million.

So why hasn't Mississippi?

A longstanding preference for less-expensive merit aid programs may be a reason.

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Mississippi's best and brightest

When lawmakers created MTAG in 1995, their goal was to help middle-class students afford college. The legislation was championed at a pivotal time by Eddie Briggs, the first Republican lieutenant governor in Mississippi since the Reconstruction era. To this day, the grant primarily benefits Republicans' traditional constituents: White, middle-class Mississippians.

“This program will help to keep Mississippi's best and brightest here at home,” Briggs wrote in an op-ed at the time.

Two years later, lawmakers created the state's Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students. But unlike MTAG, which lawmakers were required to fund from one year to the next, HELP was available only if the money was. In the program's first year, Mississippi budgeted just $500,000 for HELP but spent $900,000, a fraction to MTAG's $12 million.

Today, HELP is the most expensive grant program, because it pays for all four years of college. Of the three, it's also the most effective at what it was created to do. And yet it benefits the fewest Mississippians: Just 4,538 students received HELP last year, less than a third that received MTAG.

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Mississippi's spending on college financial aid is also tied to state revenue, said Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee who in 2018 led discussions to change Mississippi's grant programs.

Adequate funding of the colleges and universities, Hopson said, helps keep tuition low.

“It is an overriding theme that we want to keep our colleges affordable, and I think we are,” he said. “It's always a moving target.”

With this latest proposal, lawmakers' tune may be changing on need-based aid as Mississippi's colleges and universities, teetering on the edge of a demographic shift that will mean fewer high school graduates go to college, need more students in seats.

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And, there's an increased push for workforce development programs, which have been called the “message of the day” in .

Sparks, senator from Belmont, said he would like to see changes to MTAG encourage people to pursue well-paid careers. He liked that last year's proposal offered a bonus for students to major in certain subjects deemed “high-value pathways” by the state's workforce development office. That seemed like a way to ensure the spending has a return-on-investment, Sparks said.

“I don't want to get into choosing what you (students) go take,” Sparks said. “But on the other hand, if I'm looking for someone else to pay the way or pay a portion of the way, they're going to have more input than if I went in and said, ‘I got this myself.'”

Universities v. community colleges?

As with last year's bill, this proposal is likely to down to a tug-of-war between universities and community colleges.

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During the Senate meeting, Hopson asked if the extra dollars might be better spent in direct appropriations to the public institutions considering the new program would also benefit Mississippi's private colleges.

“If we put $31 million into Kell (Smith)'s budget or into Al Rankin's budget, they'd probably say give me the $31 million,” Hopson said. “But the private colleges would probably like this better because they're going to get some part of this.”

Hopson asked if it would be possible to instead ask the public colleges and universities to use the additional funding for institutional scholarships. Rogers replied that money “doesn't always trickle down.”

“I think probably you know exactly what their response is going to be,” Rogers said. “But I guess, from my perspective, someone has got to stand up and fight for the students who are facing a huge affordability puzzle.”

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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On this day in 1929

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Feb. 23, 1929

Elston 's plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium Credit: Wikipedia

catcher Elston Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri. 

In 1955, he became the first Black player to sign with the New York Yankees, signing a $70,000 contract — the highest paid baseball player at the time.

By 1959, the Yankees were often playing Howard at first base so he could remain in the lineup. Despite lacking a regular position, he was selected to the All-Star team in 1957, the first of nine consecutive years through 1965 in which he made the squad.

In 1963, he became the American League's Most Valuable Player, the first Black player to do so, after setting a record in putouts and total chances in a season. He is credited with inventing the doughnut for batting practice, which makes the bat feel heavier so that it will feel lighter when swinging at the plate.

Howard won four World as a player and two more as a coach for the Yankees, becoming the first Black coach in the American League. After coaching, he became an administrative assistant with the Yankees and died in 1980.

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“The Yankees' organization lost more class on the ,” New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote, “than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years.”

The Yankees wore a black armband in memory of him in the 1981 season. Three years later, the Yankees retired his number, 32, and dedicated a plaque that honored him as “a man of great gentleness and dignity” — “one of the truly great Yankees.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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