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The eagerly anticipated 2023 legislative session begins

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The eagerly anticipated 2023 legislative session begins

Mississippi lawmakers, traveling to Jackson from every county and corner of the , convened the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 3 at noon.

No matter how you strike it, what lawmakers accomplish over the next 90 days could impact the state for years to come. It’s not hyperbole to say that generational transformation is possible for our state this session. Mississippi Today journalists will be in the halls of the Capitol every single day, asking tough but fair questions of our elected officials and letting you know what happens.

For all the problems the state faces, lawmakers are sitting on a revenue surplus of about $4 billion — more unencumbered money than the state has ever had on hand to spend. Legislators have broad flexibility on how to spend it, and many leaders disagree vehemently on specifics. This certainly sets up dramatic debate and a wild few weeks at the Capitol.

PODCAST: What to watch for in 2023 legislative session

We already know this is Speaker of the House Philip Gunn’s final legislative session after serving three full terms, and there are already signals that his long-held power may already be waning. On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann faces some political crosswinds from within his own party that will play out between now and Feb. 1, the deadline to qualify for 2023 elections. With the strength of leadership in question in both chambers, we’ll keep an eye on how policy making might be affected.

Here are some other key issues, among many others, we’re watching closely this session:

  • Mississippi is in a health care crisis. Dozens of rural hospitals across the state are on the verge of closing or significantly cutting back health services, and hundreds of thousands of residents cannot afford basic . One potential solution that is gaining momentum in recent weeks is expanding under the Affordable Care Act, as 39 other states have done. For more than 10 years, legislative leaders have rejected the program that would flow tens of millions more federal dollars into the state coffers and provide health care to working, poor .
  • Several cities and counties are struggling to keep water flowing to residents. Jackson, the state capital, in particular, has been at the center of national media coverage as residents of the state’s largest city continue to not have reliable water services at home or businesses.
  • All the while, several key legislative leaders want to completely eliminate the state income tax, which accounts for more than one-third of the revenue the state collects. Opponents of the move, including several Republicans, say the state cannot afford to lose that much annually with so many government services already underfunded. Some who oppose the tax cut want to instead send tax rebate checks directly to Mississippians.
  • A broad coalition of Mississippi voters want but still do not have a ballot initiative process after the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2021. The process, which residents in most states have, allows voters to circumvent lawmakers in passing specific laws or policies.

To devote special attention to this potentially historic legislative session, we’re launching our annual special section called the Mississippi Legislative Guide. There, you’ll find the basics like how a bill becomes law, key legislative deadlines and how to find and contact your lawmakers. The centerpiece of the guide, of course, will be our newsroom’s comprehensive coverage of the 2023 legislative session.

We hope this will be a helpful resource as you navigate these next few weeks, but we want to know how it could be improved. If you have questions or suggestions for us, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thank you, as always, for reading. We appreciate your support as ever.

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

Could Jefferson Davis, J.Z. George follow Bilbo to storage?

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Could Jefferson Davis, J.Z. George follow Bilbo to storage?

For the first time in more than 68 years, the statue of Theodore Bilbo will not be in the Mississippi Capitol when the convenes its 2023 session on Jan. 3.

The bronze statue of the diminutive demagogue who ran for and won two elections for governor and three for U.S. senator by spewing racial rhetoric and opposing anti-lynching laws has been banished from the Mississippi Capitol.

Some believe the monuments of two other racist figures from Mississippi’s past should be the next to be removed — but not from the state Capitol, but from the U.S. Capitol.

Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, the Mississippi Senate minority leader, has requested legislation to be drafted that he will author in the upcoming 2023 session to the statues of and James Zachariah George from the U.S. Capitol. Davis, of course, was president of the Confederacy. The lesser known George was one of the architects of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution that was a blueprint for other Southern states to follow on how to discriminate against African Americans and prevent them from .

While George and Davis represent Mississippi in the U.S. Capitol, interestingly neither are native . They were selected by the Mississippi Legislature in 1924 to represent the state in the nation’s Capitol.

Each state is allowed to select two monuments to be displayed in the U.S. Capitol. Mississippi is the only state where both of its statues, supposedly representing its people and its beliefs, are so directly linked to a racist past and the Confederacy.

The mothballing of the supposedly life-size bronze statue of Bilbo continues a trend that Simmons hopes to continue with the removal of Davis and George. The trend began in 2020 when the Mississippi Legislature surprised onlookers by voting to retire and replace the state that incorporated prominently in its design the battle emblem.

Legislators did not vote to remove Bilbo, but in a sense acquiesced in the mothballing. In late 2021, House Clerk Andrew Ketchings, who was elected by House members to oversee the day-to-day operations of the chamber, took it upon himself to quietly remove the statue from a key House Committee room where it has been exhibited since the early 1980s.

“Because of everything he stood for, I think this should have been done years ago,” Ketchings said in February 2022. “It was way past time to do it.”

The Mississippi Legislature passed a resolution in 1948 soon after Bilbo’s to place a statue of him “in a prominent place on the first floor of the new Capitol building.”

PHOTOS: Segregationist’s statue leaves Capitol for Two Museums’ basement

The statue was unveiled in April 1954, according to newspaper accounts. In the early 1980s then-Gov. William Winter had the sculpture removed from the 1st floor rotunda to what was then a little-used room in the Capitol. But in more recent years the room — 113 — has been used for House committee meetings, including by the Legislative Black Caucus. Members would use the outstretched arm of Bilbo as a coat rack.

Ketchings hid the statue, estimated to weigh about 2,000 pounds, in a Capitol storage room. It was recently moved to storage underneath the Two Mississippi Museums. Archives and History Executive Director Katie Blount said recently there is no plan to exhibit the Bilbo statue.

Simmons said he is filing legislation to remove the monuments from the U.S. Capitol because “we should continue the progress we made in 2020 when we replaced the state flag by removing symbols that divide us.”

Federal guidelines give the authority to each state Legislature to determine the statues to be exhibited in the U.S. Capitol.

In 2021, an effort was made to pass federal legislation to remove the two Mississippi monuments from the U.S. Capitol. All members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation opposed the federal legislation except 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s lone Democrat and only African American member of Congress.

Thompson said he voted for the legislation because “statues of those who served in the Confederacy or supported slavery or segregation should not have a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol.”

Mississippi’s Republican members of Congress said they believe it should be up to states to decide the monuments representing them in the U.S. Capitol.

Simmons said he intends to give Mississippians, through their elected representatives, an opportunity to vote on the removal of the two statues.

Simmons said his legislation would reassemble the board that was put in place in 2020 to lead the effort to select a new flag for the state and give it the responsibility for selecting who would represent Mississippi in the U.S. Capitol.

If Simmons is successful, perhaps Bilbo would have company from Jefferson Davis and J.Z. George in the bowels of the Two Mississippi Museums.

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

ProPublica selects Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today as Local Reporting Network partner

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ProPublica selects Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today as Local Reporting Network partner

Isabelle Taft is a reporter and member of the Community Health Team at Mississippi Today, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

ProPublica has selected Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today’s community health reporter, as a Local Reporting Network fellow for 2023. Taft will spend the next year in collaboration with the award-winning, nonprofit investigative newsroom on a special project.

She will begin her investigative project on Jan. 3.

While at Mississippi Today, Taft has covered , maternal and infant health, mental health and the operations of the Division of . She previously reported on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the Sun Herald, where she won the 2020 Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism from the Mississippi Press Association.

Taft and Mississippi Today will join four other partner newsrooms and local journalists from New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi in the network next year.

“Isabelle is an incredibly talented, passionate and hard-working reporter who has worked in the state for several years,” said Community Health Editor Kate Royals. “We at Mississippi Today are thrilled to partner with ProPublica on Isabelle’s important and impactful project, and we are looking forward to a year of close collaboration with one of the best newsrooms in the nation.”

ProPublica launched the Local Reporting Network at the beginning of 2018 to boost investigative journalism in local newsrooms. It has since worked with nearly 60 organizations. The network is part of ProPublica’s local initiative, which includes offices in the Midwest, South and Southwest, plus an investigative unit in partnership with The Texas Tribune.

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

Robert Taylor named new state superintendent of education

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The Board of Education has named a North Carolina educator and Mississippi native as the next state superintendent.

Robert Taylor, a native of Laurel, will serve as the next state superintendent of education. Credit: Mississippi Department of Education

In a press release, the department announced Robert Taylor as the new leader of Mississippi’s 140 public school districts. His appointment ends a monthslong search after former State Superintendent Carey Wright stepped down from the position in June.

Taylor was most recently a deputy state superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Originally a native of Laurel, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and has worked in North Carolina schools since 1992. He has served as a teacher’s assistant, classroom teacher, school administrator, and in various district leadership positions before becoming the superintendent of Bladen County Schools in 2011. He served in this role until 2021 when he became a deputy state superintendent.

During his time in North Carolina, Taylor also helped to draft legislation restructuring state testing in and served on multiple public education advisory boards, according to the release.

“The opportunity to return home to Mississippi and work hand in hand with all stakeholders to improve education is perhaps the pinnacle of one’s career,” Taylor said in the MDE statement. “This opportunity has been afforded to my family and I and we look forward to our homecoming.”

He will start the position in late January 2023, according to the Department of Education release. Until then, Interim State Superintendent Kim Benton will continue to serve.

Taylor is the state’s second Black superintendent; the first was Henry L. Johnson, who also came to Mississippi from North Carolina in 2002.

The Mississippi Department of Education told Taylor will be paid $300,000 annually, the same amount his predecessor, Wright, was paid.

The state board selected McPherson and Jacobson, a national superintendent search firm based in Nebraska, to conduct the search. The firm received $51,200 for its services.

“Dr. Taylor possesses all the qualities the Board sought for the next state superintendent of education,” Rosemary Aultman, chair of the State Board of Education, said in a statement. “Mississippi has become a national leader for improving student outcomes. The Board is confident we selected the right person to lead our state to achieve at even higher levels.”

The post Robert Taylor named new state superintendent of education first on Mississippi Today.

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