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FAQ: Medicaid expansion, what is it, really?

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Q&A: What is Medicaid expansion, really?

Note: This article is part of Mississippi Today’s ongoing Mississippi Crisis project. Read more about the project by clicking here.

The inner workings of , a federal program intended to provide health coverage to low-income Americans, are wonky and incredibly difficult to understand.

You’ve probably heard the term “Medicaid expansion,” words that have become weaponized by opportunistic politicians, used as a smoke screen to avoid talking earnestly about an extension of the existing federal program that provides even more people with basic health care coverage. 

As Mississippi’s health care crisis continues, we’ve compiled answers to some frequently asked questions to show the direct effects of the policy, how it could change lives across the , and what the state could stand to gain by passing it.

Click on questions below to jump to answers, or scroll down to see it all.

Click to jump to a specific question

What is Medicaid? 

Medicaid is a federal program that provides health coverage to millions of people in the U.S., including low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities. States administer the program, which is funded by both states and the federal government. Mississippi currently participates in the traditional Medicaid program.

What is Medicaid expansion? 

Medicaid expansion is a special provision created under President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act that aims to allow more low-income Americans to be covered by the program and decrease the number of uninsured people. Mississippi is one of 12 states that has not opted into the expansion program. In states that have chosen to expand, Medicaid eligibility is extended to adults up to age 64 who have incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level – or about $25,000 for a family of two. 

Currently in Mississippi, non-disabled adults without children generally never qualify for the program, and the income requirements are very stringent for those who are parents ($4,608 in annual earnings for a family of three). 

How many additional people would be insured if Mississippi expanded Medicaid?

Studies have estimated Medicaid expansion in Mississippi would cover over 200,000 additional people. Other states that have expanded have seen a decline in uninsured people – a desired outcome in Mississippi, which ranks 6th in the nation for the percentage of uninsured people. 

What would the economic impact of Medicaid expansion be?

Estimates show Medicaid expansion would bring in more than $1 billion in new revenue each year. Multiple studies have shown Medicaid expansion would save the state money by reducing uncompensated care costs for hospitals, reducing chronic illness through preventive care, and that it would help the by creating thousands of jobs and the “multiplier effect” of the federal dollars. Studies by state economists have shown it would, over time, increase the state’s GDP and population. 

What are the mechanisms that could be used in Mississippi to expand Medicaid? 

Expansion of Medicaid in Mississippi would require action by the state , and approval by the governor.

Who is in favor of Medicaid expansion and why?

Many leaders and physicians in the medical community favor Medicaid expansion because of the financial benefits their institutions would reap. Health care organizations like the Mississippi State Medical Association, Mississippi Hospital Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and countless others support expansion. And top business leaders and organizations like the Delta Council have publicly supported Medicaid expansion because of the broader economic benefits it would create. 

Democrats in the Legislature, who wield little power and influence over major policymaking decisions, and scores of other Democratic elected officials have publicly supported Medicaid expansion for years. Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the leader of the state Senate, has repeatedly highlighted the need for health care for working people, though he stops short of advocating for Medicaid expansion. Several other legislative Republicans and even Republican statewide candidates in recent elections have publicly supported expansion, but none have succeeded in starting earnest debate in the Legislature.

Who opposes Medicaid expansion and why? 

Top Republican leaders in the state, led by Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, have long rejected Medicaid expansion. Many of the arguments against expansion have been overtly political and partisan — opposition against expanding “Obamacare,” which many Republicans opposed from the start. Others are more philosophical arguments against increasing any large government program or that health care should be done through the private sector. But two of the main arguments from Mississippi elected leaders against it have been that the state budget cannot afford it and that the federal government will one day stop paying the largest share and leave state taxpayers holding the bag.

What has happened in other states that have expanded Medicaid?

Other states that have expanded Medicaid have seen a large drop in uncompensated care costs – the costs that hospitals must cover themselves to care for uninsured patients. Louisiana, our neighbor that expanded Medicaid in 2016, saw a 55% decrease in uncompensated care costs for rural hospitals after expanding — and a substantial drop in mortality rates.

Why do states have the choice of whether to participate in Medicaid expansion? 

The in 2012 issued a decision in a case that challenged the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping health care reform law enacted in 2010 that aimed to make health insurance more affordable. One major tenet of the law was to expand Medicaid to cover more people. The high court upheld the law in general, but said that the federal government could not mandate that states expand Medicaid. Based on that portion of the ruling, 12 states, including Mississippi, have not expanded Medicaid. In Mississippi, the few times the issue of Medicaid expansion has been before either full chamber of the Legislature is when Democratic members have offered amendments to other Medicaid-related bills. The Republican majorities have regularly voted down those amendments.

How much do Mississippi hospitals pay to care for people who don’t have insurance or Medicaid? 

The cost of uninsured care for calendar year 2021 is estimated to be $482 million. The cost of total uncompensated care (uninsured plus others who don’t pay the full balance) is $594 million. Hospitals must cover these costs themselves, often leading to budget woes that can close a hospital for good or require drastic cuts in health services offered. The effects of this uncompensated care have only worsened as the pandemic and the accompanying high labor costs have financially strained hospitals. Medicaid expansion would flow millions per year directly to hospitals to help them cover these costs.

Is our current Medicaid program free? Who qualifies for it? 

Medicaid is free for beneficiaries and funded by the federal and state governments. Currently in Mississippi, several categories of people qualify for Medicaid:

  • Infants and children who live in low-income families
  • Uninsured children whose family income does not exceed 209% of the federal poverty level will qualify for Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • Parents and caretakers of minor children who live in the home. The parents must be without the support of one or both parents due to disability, , or continued absence or who are unemployed or have very low income. To qualify, the parent or caretaker must cooperate with child support enforcement requirements for each child whose parent is absent from the home.
  • Pregnant women with income under 194% of the federal poverty level. These women will receive benefits for two months postpartum and are then put on the family planning waiver.
  • Pregnant women under 19 years old automatically qualify for pregnancy Medicaid.
  • Disabled children who require a level of care typically provided in a hospital or long term care facility but are living at home. 
  • Working disabled: Adults whose income is below a certain level and who work at least 40 hours per month. 
  • Aged, blind or disabled people who received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), those who formerly received SSI, and those residing in a nursing facility or participating in a Home and Community Based Services Waiver Program.

How much does it cost the state and taxpayers to provide our current Medicaid program? 

Medicaid expenditures are based on usage. The more Medicaid beneficiaries see health care providers for treatments, the greater the cost. For the current fiscal year, the Legislature has appropriated $902 million in state funds for the Division of Medicaid and expects to receive $5.79 billion in federal funds. Mississippi, as the nation’s poorest state, receives the best matching rate with the federal government currently paying 84.5% of the health care costs. The state pays the rest. If not for the COVID-19 emergency that is slated to remain into effect until early in 2023, the federal government would be providing Mississippi a 77.86% matching rate. But currently, the federal government pays 90% of the health care costs for those covered through Medicaid expansion. In addition, the federal government would provide non-expansion states a two-year incentive to opt into Medicaid expansion. For Mississippi that would result in more than $600 million in federal funds over two years.

What services are covered under the current Medicaid program? 

Full Medicaid benefits cover office visits, family planning services, inpatient and outpatient hospital care, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, long term care services and inpatient psychiatric services. Medicaid will also provide transportation to eligible beneficiaries if they do not have other means of getting to medical appointments. 

What are the differences between traditional Medicaid and expanded Medicaid?

The difference is more people are eligible under expanded Medicaid. Expansion would mean people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level — or $25,000 for a family of two — would qualify for benefits. This would mostly include low-income, able-bodied parents; low-income adults without children; and many low-income individuals with chronic mental illness or disabilities who struggle to maintain well-paying jobs but do not currently meet disability requirements for Medicaid.

What is postpartum Medicaid and what is the debate about extending it?

Federal law requires states to provide pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage through 60 days postpartum, but many women, particularly in Mississippi and other non-expansion states, lose coverage at that point aside from basic family planning services and birth control. Health professionals and advocates have argued Mississippi needs to extend that coverage to a year postpartum like 34 other states have done. They say this will provide much-needed improvements in health outcome for mothers and babies in the state, where 60% of births are covered by Medicaid.  

Despite bipartisan support for extending coverage for the tens of thousands of moms covered by Medicaid in Mississippi in the Senate, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn killed the bill in the 2022 legislative session and remains opposed. He cites his opposition to Medicaid expansion, but the legislation would not have expanded Medicaid eligibility – it would’ve extended coverage for people who already qualify.

Mississippi and Wyoming are now the only two states with neither extended postpartum coverage nor Medicaid expansion.

What is CHIP and how is it different from Medicaid?

CHIP stands for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and provides health coverage for uninsured children up to 19 years old and whose family income does not exceed 209% of the federal poverty level.   

The coverage, unlike Medicaid for adults, includes dental care as well as medical services. 

The state recently added mental health coverage as a mandatory benefit – including services necessary to prevent, diagnose and treat a broad range of mental health symptoms and disorders.

What is the history of Medicaid?

The U.S. Congress, at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson, approved Medicaid in 1965 to offer a safety net health coverage for poor Americans. Under the landmark legislation, the federal government and the states would share in paying the costs of the program. Mississippi was one of the last states to opt into the traditional Medicaid program during a 1969 special session. Mississippi Gov. John Bell Williams, who called the special session, voted against the Medicaid program as a member of Congress. As governor, Williams said it would benefit Mississippi to opt into the Medicaid program.

How many people in Mississippi are on Medicaid now?

As of July 2021, about 797,000 were enrolled in either full-benefit Medicaid coverage or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

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

Speaker Philip Gunn will not seek reelection

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Speaker Philip Gunn will not seek reelection

Speaker Philip Gunn announced on Wednesday that he will not seek reelection to the House next year, ending the third-longest speakership in history.

“It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to serve as speaker of the Mississippi
House,” Gunn said in a statement. “I am extremely grateful to the people of District 56 who have given me the opportunity to serve them for the last 20 years and to the members of the House who have entrusted the role of speaker to me for 12 years. I believe we have moved Mississippi in a positive direction, and I am proud of what we have accomplished together and look forward to another productive session in 2023.
“Having said that, I have decided not to seek re-election for House District 56. My service as Speaker coming to an end does not mean I will not be open to future opportunities to serve,” Gunn said. “I love our state and will always work to make her better. I believe there will be an opportunity for me to serve our state soon and when that time comes, I will be ready.”

Gunn made the announcement first to his GOP House caucus members at a meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, praised his House counterpart.

“My friend, Philip Gunn, has decided to pause his public service to the state,” Hosemann said. “His fingerprints exist on most of Mississippi legislative history for his 12 years as speaker. From child trafficking to tax reform (legislation), he provided consistent conservative, faith-based leadership to his colleagues.” 

House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-, one of Gunn’s top lieutenants, said: “I wasn’t surprised, but for selfish reasons I am disappointed because I think Philip has done a wonderful job. He is the best speaker I have known in my time. His ethics, his morals and his wanting to do the right thing — that’s in his DNA. He doesn’t just talk, he walks the walk. You’ll see that in anything he decides to do in the future … He said he doesn’t have any plans right now. He’ll rejoin the private sector at some point. It’s just going to be a huge loss not only for the House of Representatives but for the state of Mississippi. That’s why I hope he will get back into the public arena.”

Gunn’s announcement ends more than a year of speculation on Gunn’s future — particularly whether he might make a gubernatorial in 2023. He made some such overtures last year, including fundraising and statewide travel, but had to cool on the idea of challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. He had also been discussed more recently as a possible candidate to run the state community college system.

A Clinton resident, Gunn was elected to the House in 2003 and soon rose to prominence as a key voice in the Republican caucus. When the Republicans garnered the majority in the House as a result of the 2011 elections, Gunn was elected speaker by the 122-member House, the first Republican to hold that office since Reconstruction.

Gunn helped increase Republican numbers in the House, with the 2015 elections resulting in a GOP supermajority. He successfully championed numerous tax cuts during his time in office, but has so far been unsuccessful with what he said has been his No. 1 policy priority, elimination of the state personal income tax.

READ MORE: Gunn whips final House votes to change state flag – Mississippi Today

A social conservative and devout Baptist, Gunn also supported elimination of . This was accomplished with a decision in a case involving a Mississippi House bill Gunn supported.

“For those fortunate enough to truly know Speaker Philip Gunn, we are certain that the state of Mississippi and her people are much better off as a result of his leadership as speaker,” said House Ways and Means Chair Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia. “Most importantly, he is a God-fearing family man and it has been a tremendous honor to serve with him and call him my friend.”

State Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth, a former Democrat who changed to the Republican Party before the 2019 election, said, “He has been good to me. He has been good to my constituents in Alcorn County … I have nothing but good things to say about him.”

Gunn was one of the first Republicans on the statewide level to advocate for removing the battle emblem from the state . Gunn did so after a white supremist killed nine people at an African American church in Charleston, S.C. The killer had featured a Confederate flag in his social media posts.

READ MORE: Will Gunn run? Speaker signaling 2023 challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves

For years, Gunn’s Republican caucus did not express interest in following his lead on the state flag. But in 2020 legislation came out of the House championed by Gunn and ultimately approved by the full retiring the state flag and establishing a panel to recommend a new flag to place on the ballot. Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved the new flag sans the Confederate symbol.

House Speaker Protem Jason White, R-West, is considered by many as the heir apparent to the speakership, although Gunn reportedly did not endorse a successor to the caucus on Wednesday.

“He told everyone that it is not for him to turn his seat over to anyone, but would be up to the House of Representatives,” Bennett said. “… But I think Jason (White) is the lead person and I’d be surprised if Jason was not the next speaker of the House.”

READ MORE: Speaker Philip Gunn scales back his income tax elimination proposal

White, one of Gunn’s closest allies, confirmed that he had formed a political action committee and “has been fairly successful” in raising funds to help his Republican colleagues in the House seeking reelection.

He said he would focus on his own reelection to the House, and to work on the reelection efforts of House colleagues and “then figure it out from there.”

Bain said of a possible White candidacy for speaker, “If Jason runs, he will have my full support.”

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

Embattled DA in Curtis Flowers case headed to runoff in circuit judge race

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Embattled DA in Curtis Flowers case headed to runoff in circuit judge race

Longtime prosecutor Doug Evans, known for trying Curtis Flowers six times for murder with convictions that were later overturned, is headed for a Nov. 29 runoff for a circuit court judge seat.

Evans earned the second-most votes Tuesday in five-person election and will face top vote-getter Winona Municipal Court Judge Alan “Devo” Lancaster because neither candidate garnered 50% of the vote.

The 5th Circuit Court district includes Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Montgomery, Grenada, Webster and Winston counties. The winner will succeed Judge George Mitchell, who died in April.

As a circuit court judge, Evans could hear criminal cases in the same district where the said he prevented Black people from serving as jurors, including in Flowers’ case. 

Evans, who has been the district attorney of the district for over 30 years, first tried Flowers in 1997 for the killings of four people at the Tardy Furniture store in Winona. 

Evans secured four penalty convictions for Flowers, but those were overturned by and federal courts. In two trials, a jury didn’t reach a unanimous verdict. 

READ MORE: Curtis Flowers files federal lawsuit against Mississippi DA Doug Evans for misconduct in wrongful prosecution

The U.S Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ conviction in 2019, ruling Evans barred Black jurors in the case. 

Evans recused himself after the , which represented Flowers, asked for him to be from the case. Lynn Fitch was appointed as the lead prosecutor.

In September 2020, Fitch’s office dropped charges against Flowers after he spent 23 years in prison, most of it on death row at the at Parchman. 

In 2021, Flowers sued Evans in federal court for misconduct, which Evans has denied. U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers Jr. ordered the case stayed until May 1, 2023.

Other candidates in the 5th District Circuit Court race were Ackerman attorney Kasey Burney Young, Kosciusko attorney Doug Crosby and Louisville attorney Zachary Madison. 

Lancaster is a partner at the Lancaster Taylor Law Firm in Winona. He has been a municipal judge in Winona since 2010 and attorney for Montgomery County Economic Development since 1986. 

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

Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

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Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

More than a century before failing infrastructure left Jackson, Mississippi, without running water this summer, thousands of the capital city’s residents gathered in a park downtown to celebrate the new water filtration plant that promised to turn the muddy liquid flowing into people’s taps into “clean, pure water.”

People poured in from nearby schools and factories to witness history that morning in November 1914, according to the account in the Jackson Daily News. 

Train whistles blew, cheerleaders carried large banners, and city leaders spoke from a stage decorated with flags, pennants and bunting.

“Our historic capital city has many causes for congratulation,” said Edgar S. Wilson, a prominent and politically connected businessman who presided over the event, “but clear water is her crowning glory, her greatest asset; a blessing that will pass from generation to generation.”

Today, Jackson’s water system is a symbol of national embarrassment, highlighted by this August’s crisis that deprived more than 170,000 people of water to drink, wash or flush toilets.

It was the latest in a series of water-related problems plaguing the ’s biggest city. They include frequent line breaks, shut-offs, boil-water notices and an ongoing exposure to toxic lead and harmful bacteria. Jackson consistently has been in violation of safe drinking water standards since at least 2018 and has been under a federal order since 2020 to fix a host of issues impacting its water system. A 2013 consent decree Jackson entered with state and federal agencies requiring it to fix its beleaguered wastewater system also remains in effect.

Even now, the system continues to teeter on the brink of failure. It strained to meet the demand of an additional 55,000 people who attended Jackson State University’s homecoming game against Campbell University on Oct. 22. An even larger crowd is expected Saturday for JSU’s game against Southern University with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town. Residents were warned on Monday that this could again push the water system to the limit and were urged to ration water usage.

State officials have blamed leaders of the predominantly Black city for fiscal mismanagement and neglect. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in a recent statement called the situation “a crisis of incompetence” and pointed a finger directly at Jackson’s mayor.

City leaders, meanwhile, accuse state officials of the predominantly white legislative and executive branches of ignoring their cries for help. Democratic Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba during an interview earlier this year with Mississippi Today called state lawmakers’ attitudes toward Jackson “paternalistic” and “racist.” During a press conference in September, he told residents not to trust the state.

But a USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that the foundation for these current failures was laid decades ago and problems compounded as the city evolved. Since then, city leaders and state officials alike have abandoned civility in lieu of finger pointing and steered the system into a collision course with disaster. 

Reporters combed through more than a century of newspaper archives, decades of the city’s annual financial statements, water quality reports and studies of the municipal system over the years, as well as recent lawsuits and orders against the city for violating drinking water standards. They also interviewed more than a dozen residents, city and state officials and former workers of the water system who shared firsthand knowledge of the problems. 

The reporting found a complex story of population decline, poverty, racism, politics, mismanagement and . But key details emerged that, when pieced together, paint a portrait of a water system that was flawed from the start and worsened exponentially over the years as those in power seemingly lost control. 

The system was cobbled together over the course of several administrations into a needlessly complicated operation with several moving parts. Complaints about bad water were rampant early on, and the system, unlike most Mississippi communities, relies mostly on surface water instead of cleaner, simpler wells. 

Jackson now has some 1,000 miles of water mains and two treatment plants: the original one, named J.H. Fewell, that can draw up to 25 million gallons a day from the Pearl River; and another one that opened in 1993, named O.B. Curtis, that can draw twice as much from the manmade Ross Barnett Reservoir located northeast of the city. The O.B. Curtis plant uses two different types of filtration systems to treat the water – conventional and membrane, making it tricky to manage.

Further complicating things, Jackson also operates a small system of wells that rely on groundwater and serve about 16,000 customers in the southern part of the city and nearby Byram.

“Until someone disputes this, and no one has been able to, you have probably the most complex water treatment facility in the country,” Lumumba said at a community meeting last month.

The original plant and piping that was laid more than a century ago started reaching the end of their lifespans just as Jackson’s population began to decline and its wealthier white residents fled for the suburbs. By the time Jackson elected its first Black mayor in 1997, the system was already in desperate need of repair but lacked the customer base to afford the then-$300 million worth of improvements. 

The price tag for those and other improvements has ballooned over the years to an estimated $1 billion as one administration after the next postponed infrastructure projects amid a dwindling revenue stream. Although the city collected some $900 million from customers over the past two decades, it lost nearly a half billion dollars in unbilled and unpaid usage during the same time from rampant theft and a botched metering and billing system. 

Meanwhile, the city failed to keep its plants fully staffed and functionally operating, leading to a deterioration of water conditions. Jackson has racked up multiple state and federal drinking water violations in the past five years and, in 2020, got hit with an emergency order by the Environmental Protection Agency. It must now commit to costly improvements to remedy the problems but lacks the funds to do it. 

As Jackson struggles, state leaders have done little to help. Every year since at least 2018, Jackson has sought financial assistance from the to improve its water system. And every year, those bills have died in committee.

“We’re at a reckoning point,” said Leigh Terry, assistant professor of environmental engineering at The University of Alabama. “We’re going to see more of these cases come up if we don’t invest and do the maintenance needed to replace these pipes, and pump systems and everything that often gets neglected.”

Jackson’s water woes are extreme but not rare. They’re endemic of a problem plaguing cities from coast to coast, as failures from aging infrastructure outpace funding for improvements.

But Jackson’s residents are particularly hard hit. Nearly 84% of them are minorities, and one in four 1 in 4 lives in poverty. Many struggle to pay their bills, much less buy bottled water every time the system strains. 

“I can’t even count how many times we’ve been on boil-water notice with the main gaskets breaking and the pipes breaking in the wintertime,” said Evelyn Fletcher, a federal building inspector who moved to Jackson 13 years ago. “I feel that God allowed this situation to be exposed across America, and even other countries, so we could get the assistance that we really need. I feel like it was God’s timing because we’ve been going through it for a while.”

A fire that led to water

The state of Mississippi took its name from the mighty waterway slicing through the country, but it was the lesser-known Pearl River that gave rise to the state’s capital. 

Jackson was established as the seat of government in 1821 in part because of its proximity to the Pearl, which cuts down the center of the state. But it wasn’t until a fire threatened to consume the city’s business district six decades later that the river became its life force.

The 1884 blaze had left firefighters scrambling for water, so local leaders devised a plan to pump the Pearl. This would ensure a steady supply of water for drinking, bathing and fire protection. In April 1889, the “Water Works Co.” began operations, delivering “pure, healthful river water” through a network of underground pipes, according to newspaper archives.

But it was not without its problems. The untreated river water was subject to contamination from bacteria and pollutants. Sometimes it arrived in people’s homes full of mud.

Residents soon looked to artesian wells as a solution and, in 1910, voted to create a new system from these free-flowing underground springs. “We want artesian water,” a Jackson Daily News headline demanded that year. But, by 1912, the company hired to drill the wells could produce just 2.5 million gallons of water a day – not enough for the city’s 4 million gallon per day requirement. 

Jackson’s groundwater is limited because the city sits on top of an inactive volcano, which stunted the formation of the area’s underground aquifers as they developed over the eons. Because they formed on top of the existing volcano, they’re shallower and thinner than usual, said Bill Oakley, a geologist who worked for decades for the U.S. Geological Survey and still consults on well projects throughout Mississippi.

To reach the desired capacity would be costly, engineers said in 1912. It would mean drilling additional wells and maintaining gasoline engines or electric motors for pumping. This forced the city to consider two other options: either drawing ground water from shallow wells in nearby Rankin County or building a filtration plant to purify water from the Pearl River. 

The matter was decided in one afternoon in April 1913 when then-Mayor Swepson James Taylor and an ad-hoc commission of prominent citizens determined that “filtration of the Pearl river supply is Jackson’s only solution to the water problem,” according to an account from the Jackson Daily News.

Limited groundwater supplies forced their hand, Oakley said. But in choosing filtered river water, Jackson diverged from the path most Mississippi communities would take.

All but 15 of the more than 1,000 community water systems in Mississippi pull from ground sources, according to EPA records. Of those that use surface water, most purchase it from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which draws water from the Tombigbee River.

Although it has its problems, groundwater from wells and aquifers is generally cleaner and easier to treat. It usually contains less bacteria and is of a higher and more consistent quality. By contrast, surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs can vary dramatically depending on where and when it’s collected, and it generally has more contaminants, sediments and debris to be filtered out. 

Memphis, Tennessee, which initially relied on the Wolf River as its primary source of drinking water, faced a similar dilemma as Jackson in the late 1800s, especially after a deadly outbreak of Yellow Fever that swept the region was linked to unsanitary water. But unlike Jackson, Memphis could tap into an abundant aquifer and continues to tout its clean water to this day. 

Memphis’ municipal water system has had no violations or enforcement actions in at least five years, EPA records show. Jackson, meanwhile, has 176 violation points and more than 70 enforcement actions during the same time period. 

As state and federal regulations over drinking water have stiffened over the decades, it has become more challenging to staff Jackson’s water system. It takes up to six years of training and a Class A certification to operate a surface water treatment plant, which requires someone onsite 24 hours a day. 

Jackson consistently has struggled to hire and retain enough operators to its system. This stems from a combination of low wages, high training requirements and a dearth of other surface water systems from which to recruit talent. 

In choosing surface water, Jackson created for itself a host of challenges. But, in the view of Jason Barrett, associate extension professor with the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, 

Jackson’s decision was not a fatal flaw. Other cities – like Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville – also pull from surface water sources without nearly the issues facing their Mississippi neighbor. 

“I don’t think Jackson’s issue is the quality of the source,” Barrett said. “I think Jackson’s problem is management.”

The rise and fall of a city

Jackson’s population, which hovered just above 21,000 when it opened its first filtration plant, continually swelled over the next few decades as it matured from a dusty river town to a bustling metropolis. 

More than 60,000 people called Jackson home by the start of the second World War, and the city was laying hundreds of miles of new pipes to accommodate the steady influx of households, schools and businesses. The filtration plant, which could pull just 4 million gallons of water a day from the Pearl River when it opened, was pumping up to twice that much by the mid-1940s.

Water quality problems and line breakages were common during those early years, newspaper records show, but it wasn’t until January 1944 that Jackson experienced its first widespread water loss. After a valve in the pumping station broke, the entire system shut down for two days and caused a panic among residents. 

“For 30 years, the Waterworks department has efficiently operated,” then-Mayor Walter A. Scott told the at the time. “It has never before been completely broken down or shut down as it was from Friday until Sunday at 3 p.m.”

It was a harbinger of things to come as the city’s population continued to grow, putting additional strain on an already aging system. The next three decades saw a series of annexations – including one in 1976 that was called the largest in state history – that more than doubled Jackson’s geographic footprint to some 120 square miles and boosted its population to over 200,000 people.

By 1979, the state Board of Health issued a grave warning that Jackson’s main surface water system was operating near capacity. The city should add no new homes or industries until fixing its “problem-ridden water treatment system,” according to a Clarion Ledger article at the time. 

“It is clearly evident that some of the water problems were inherited with city expansions,” the board said. “Other problems are due to continuing neglect of adequate operation and maintenance procedures and lack of adequate planning and foresight by city officials for many years.”

The public scolding led to the approval of $4.4 million in water infrastructure improvements the following year, but it was not enough.

Just as Jackson was making plans for the biggest expansion its water system had seen in decades – its second water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis – its population and pocketbook was were about to shrink from the reverberations of societal upheaval that had started years earlier.

Mississippi, like many Southern states, went through a period of dramatic changes in the 1960s and 1970s as a system of legal white supremacy and violent oppression of Black people gave way to the expanding movement. The federal government struck down the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws that defined the way of life across the South and forced the integration of public schools. 

Southerners largely balked at these changes. But in 1969, a decision finally forced Mississippi and other holdouts to begin desegregating. For Jackson municipal schools, the change came in 1970.

“Forty percent of the student body is gone overnight with desegregation in the city of Jackson,” said Robert Luckett, a historian at Jackson State University.  “Their parents are the political, social, economic, religious leaders of the state of Mississippi, and when they withdraw their children from the public schools – when they themselves withdraw from the city – you begin seeing almost immediately the subsequent withdrawal of support for all things Jackson.” 

White people, which had represented nearly two of every three  residents in 1960, accounted for just one in two by 1980 – and just one in six  by 2020. 

Their exodus coincided with sweeping new federal mandates. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, both passed in the 1970s, required most cities to invest in significant improvements to be able to comply with the strict new standards on testing and contaminant thresholds. 

Jackson was no exception, but not long after these rules kicked in, the federal government started to phase out its generous infrastructure grants in lieu of loans that municipalities would have to pay back. It was a double whammy for the capital city.

“I’m not sure you can point to any period in time and say, ‘this is when the problem occurred,’” former Mayor Harvey Johnson told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “But once the federal government took away its grant funding mechanism, that’s when local governments had to start relying on their own resources to get the job done. It especially hurt communities like Jackson with high incidents of poverty and low-income neighborhoods.”

Cozy relationship frays

Johnson was elected in 1997, and his ascension into office marked a historical milestone as the first time an African-American won the city’s mayor’s race. 

That distinction came with a new set of problems. Whatever cozy relationship might have existed between Jackson’s white mayors and the state’s majority white leadership was over now. Johnson and the Black mayors that came after him have faced skepticism and distrust when seeking financial aid for the struggling water system.

When the state approved a 1% sales tax for Jackson water improvements in 2009, lawmakers wouldn’t let the city control the funds. They instead created a nine-person commission outside the city’s purview to oversee and approve the tax fund’s expenditures. Johnson noted that the state placed no such restrictions on a similar sales tax for Tupelo, a majority white city in northeast Mississippi.

More recently, when Jackson received American Rescue Plan Act funds, the legislature singled out the city for extra oversight of its spending. And a bill that would have given Jackson an additional $42 million beyond what the ARPA rescue funds provided died in committee earlier this year.

State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson who works with local leaders to represent in the state house, said the lack of continuity in Jackson’s leadership has prevented the city from adopting a “long-term vision.”

“It takes more than a term to become familiar with the problems and how to address them and how to get the votes on the local level to pass it,” Frazier said.

And the plans that were in place often needed more money to actually be carried out, but lawmakers were hesitant to give Jackson more money after years of mismanagement.

Frazier said a popular sentiment in the capitol is, “Why should we send resources that they might squander?”

Reeves said in September the city doesn’t have a plan to fix its water woes and doubted it could be relied upon to provide one, echoing a sentiment that has rippled across the executive branch in recent weeks. In October, he issued a press release criticizing Lumumba’s handling of the water crisis and accusing him of acting in bad faith.

Lumumba disputed that he has no plan to fix the water system. During a September press conference, the mayor held up several documents outlining needed repairs and associated costs – documents he said he had previously shared with state elected officials. He also named previous Black mayors, including his father, who died in office in 2014, and said they, too, had tried to work with the state on this issue.

“The reality is that (former Mayor) Tony Yarber asked for money to deal with this issue. The reality is that my father asked for money to deal with this challenge,” Lumumba said. “I know that Mayor Harvey Johnson asked for money to deal with this challenge.”

USA TODAY Network reached out to both Reeves and Lumumba through their representatives, but neither was made available for comment.

Theft, broken promises and distrust

As the cost to fix Jackson’s problems climbs, the city’s utility revenues are in a freefall. 

Despite raising water and sewer rates several times in the past two decades, Jackson has struggled to generate enough revenue to keep the operation financially solvent. 

Part of the issue is its dwindling customer base. Jackson has lost utility sales as its population declines and major customers like schools and hospitals disconnect from the system in lieu of more stable sources of water like wells. 

But it’s also because of rampant theft by residents who altered meters and connections to avoid paying for water, as well as by city workers who circumvented the billing system and bribed customers to give them cash in exchange for wiping out their monthly bills. A pair of investigations, one launched in 2015 and the other in 2019, nabbed more than two dozen people in a scheme that then-Public Works Director Bob Miller called “the worst I’ve ever seen.” 

But perhaps the biggest culprit is a faulty water meter and billing system installed by German technology company Siemens as part of a $91 million contract signed in 2012. 

The meters didn’t link up to the billing system as promised, measured usage incorrectly and resulted in some customers getting overcharged while others didn’t get billed at all. The city sued Siemens and settled in 2020 for about $90 million, but Jackson is still reeling from the mess and doesn’t anticipate a resolution until late 2024.

“In my household, we have not gotten the bill in five months,” said Fletcher, the Jackson resident. “We’ve called to the city water department to ask about the bill, and they said, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten you a bill yet.’ So we’re just holding our breath to see what five months of a bill will look like.”

Utility sales to customers, which in 2014 reached a peak of more than $69 million, fell to less than $48 million in 2020, the latest year for which data was available. 

Meanwhile, its accounts receivables — mainly unpaid water bills — continued to climb. In 2003, Jackson was owed some $6 million in unpaid bills. By 2020, that number reached nearly $55 million. Customers now owe the city more than they’ve paid.

“It’s kind of like the frog in the pot,” said Quentin Whitwell, who served on the Jackson City Council from 2011-2014. “You’re in water and don’t realize it’s boiling until it’s too late. My observation today is that, you know, it all came to that boiling point, and everybody was caught off guard.”

When the system finally snaps

As the city’s financial fortunes have faltered, so too has its ability to keep its water department fully staffed. Over the last two decades, former plant employees said, the institutional knowledge needed to operate a complex system such as Jackson’s was depleted as longtime workers became dissatisfied and left. 

Employment at the water plants became top heavy with managers who knew little about the operations, while experienced workers got squeezed out, said Ronald Gilbert, who started in 1995 as an operator at J.H. Fewell before moving to operation supervisor at O.B. Curtis. 

Gilbert said the system, which always struggled on a shoestring budget, started to strain in the late 1990s. By the time he left in 2005, he said, things were getting worse.

“Not enough money, natural age and loss of skilled people,” Gilbert said. “You put that together, and anything’s going to fail.”

Gilbert said that during his tenure, the city operated its water system with a crew of about 35 people. In January 2020, just seven people were working in the entire water department, city records show. 

The city council approved across-the-board pay raises for plant operators in November 2021. But the increase did not alleviate staffing concerns in the way city administrators had hoped.

Jackson’s water system now has so few operators that some are forced to work up to 75 hours a week without overtime pay just to cover all the shifts, and supervisors are taking on the extra load in addition to their managerial duties, according to an assessment of the city’s water system conducted earlier this year.

The staffing shortages have contributed to widespread failures, including the inability to routinely monitor and maintain the system to prevent pressure loss and water contamination, a fact seized upon by the Environmental Protection Agency during a February 2020 site visit to the facility amid ongoing concerns. 

Inspectors also found numerous leaks and line breaks – as many as five or six a day – leading to a loss of water pressure and requiring the city to issue boil-water notices. In just four years, the report noted, Jackson had sent out more than 750 such notices.

The EPA slapped Jackson with an emergency administrative order citing numerous problems, including inadequate staffing, high sediment levels and poor corrosion control, all of which put consumers’ health at risk. Jackson must now implement a comprehensive plan to address the issues, but it told the EPA it lacks the funds to make improvements. 

It wasn’t the first time the city has run afoul of safe drinking water regulations. In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Health notified Jackson that several of its water samples exceeded the maximum amount of allowable lead – 15 parts per billion. The state determined that the O.B. Curtis plant had a failing corrosion control system, which is supposed to prevent lead and copper in the pipes from dissolving into the drinking water.

Jackson was ordered to fix this problem, but it continues to rack up violations for non-compliance. According to a recent notice the city distributed to customers, from “2018 to 2022, we failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for our system which is a violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.”

In addition to increased state and federal oversight, the city also now faces a series of lawsuits from citizens claiming they’ve been poisoned by lead and plagued by water shutoffs. This summer’s crisis was just the latest to leave Jackson residents without water for long periods of time – they faced a similar scenario after a February 2021 ice storm deprived them of water for weeks.

The most recent of these lawsuits, filed in September, claimed Jackson leaders have long ignored the need to upgrade the system and could have avoided all of this had they just done their jobs.

“The people of Jackson, like all people in this country, deserve access to clean and safe water,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement after meeting with Jackson officials in September. “They also deserve more than words – they need action.”

That the city’s water system would collapse amid finger-pointing and federal oversight was likely far from the minds of those who celebrated its first filtration plant that cold November day more than a century ago.

But at least one person there felt the occasion held a lesson for future Jacksonians. Speaking to the crowd of how the city put aside differing opinions and rallied around the plan to filter river water, then-City Attorney William Hemingway called the plant a “monument to harmony and unity of purpose.” He said it should remind people of the value of working together.

“And if at any time discord comes among us,” Hemingway said, “let us look to this matter and give up personal matters for the common good.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes  the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, MCIR, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

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

Supreme Court asked to review Mississippi voting rights case

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rssfeeds.clarionledger.com – Mississippi – 2022-11-01 09:42:26

JACKSON, Miss — A Mississippi legal organization is asking the to review the ’s provision permanently banning people convicted of certain felonies from .

The is petitioning the Supreme Court two months after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down its challenging voting restrictions set forth in Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution. If successful, the lawsuit could grant voting rights to thousands of people permanently banned from casting ballots as a result of felony convictions.

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U.S. Supreme Court asked to overturn felony voting ban

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U.S. Supreme Court being asked to remove last vestige of Jim Crow from state Constitution

The United States Supreme Court is being asked to find unconstitutional Mississippi’s lifetime ban on people convicted of many felonies being able to vote.

“The justices normally take about 1% of the cases they are asked to hear, but I think the odds are higher here,” said Rob McDuff, one of the attorneys who filed the case and director of the Impact Litigation Project at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “This is an important and interesting case.

“And it deals with issues that we are still grappling with in terms of race.”

The nation’s highest court is being asked to overturn the provision of the Mississippi’s constitution that places a lifetime ban on in most instances on people convicted of certain felonies — crimes that the framers of the 1890 state constitution said Black were more prone to commit.

The framers did not disenfranchise people convicted of murder or rape, for instance, but did strip voting rights of people convicted of several “lesser crimes,” which the writers of the constitution falsely believed would be committed by African Americans.

The provision was one of many placed in the Jim Crow-era state constitution to keep Black people, then a majority in the state, from voting. Those other provisions, such as a poll tax and literacy tests, have been ruled unconstitutional.

But the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the felony disenfranchisement provision in a split decision in August. The entire 17-member Court heard the case, and seven judges dissented from the majority opinion.

The majority opinion upholding the lifetime ban was unsigned. Circuit Judge James Graves Jr., who before being appointed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was only the third African American to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court, wrote a blistering dissent, describing in sometimes graphic details Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination.

The office of Attorney Lynn Fitch defended the felony disenfranchisement provision before the federal judges. Even those who uphold the provision conceded that it was added to the constitution with the intent of keeping Black people from voting.

But the majority decision was based, in large part, on the fact that in 1950 the passed a proposal approved by voters to burglary as one of the disfranchising crimes. And in the 1960s, the Legislature and ultimately the voters approved a provision making murder and rape disenfranchising crimes.

Those changes, the majority found, the “racial taint” from the original 1890 language. But McDuff pointed out that those changes were made during an era of intense racial conflict and discrimination in the state. Perhaps, more importantly, the changes did not allow Mississippians to vote on whether to remove lifetime bans from voting on people convicted of other felonies.

Or as Graves wrote in his dissent, “Mississippians have simply not been given the chance to right the wrongs of its racist origins. And this court … deprives Mississippians of this opportunity by upholding an unconstitutional law enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Black Mississippians on the basis of race.”

The 5th Circuit is viewed as one of the most conservative federal courts in the nation. McDuff conceded the current makeup of the Supreme Court also is conservative, but he expressed optimism the justices would hear the case.

“Although the Supreme Court has become more conservative in recent years, we hope it will see that the continued implementation of this racist provision is an affront to the promise of the Equal Protection of the Law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,”  McDuff said.  “This is another step forward in our lengthy legal battle to strike down the racially motivated provision in the Mississippi Constitution, which denies thousands of Mississippians the right to participate in our democracy.”

A decision on whether the Supreme Court will hear the Mississippi case most likely will be made sometime in the first half of 2023.

The Mississippi Center for Justice among other groups brought the on behalf of two Black Mississippians who had lost the right to vote: Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem, convicted of forgery and embezzlement, respectively.

Mississippi is one of fewer than 10 states where people convicted of felonies do not get their right to vote restored at some point after serving their sentence.

In Mississippi, people with felony convictions must petition the Legislature to get a bill passed by a two-thirds majority of both chambers to regain voting rights. Normally only a handful (less than five) of such bills are successful each session. There is also the option of the governor granting a pardon to restore voting rights, but no governor has granted pardons since Haley Barbour in 2012.

For a subset of those who lose their rights, the courts can expunge their record. In some instances that expungement includes the restoration of voting rights, while for others it does not. That outcome depends on the preference of the judge granting the expungement.

Those crimes placed in the constitution where conviction costs a person the right to vote are bribery, , arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary.

Under the original language of the constitution, a person could be convicted of cattle rustling and lose the right to vote, but those convicted of murder or rape would still be able to vote — even while incarcerated.

“Our country’s ideals of equality and freedom are swiftly undermined by Mississippi’s insidious practice of felony disenfranchisement, which is one of voter suppression’s most effective tools,” said Vangela Wade, chief executive officer of the Center for Justice. “Too many Mississippians, particularly people of color, face enormous hurdles to accessing the ballot box. We hope the will strike down this 132-year-old racist provision in the Mississippi Constitution.” 

Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.

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

Election: Young confident in 3rd District U.S House seat

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Young confident in 3rd District U.S House seat despite incumbent Guest being heavy favorite

The 3rd District, like three of the four Mississippi congressional districts, is a Republican stronghold.

In 2008, Democratic Pickens Mayor Joel Gill garnered 37.5% of the vote in the 3rd District congressional race against Republican attorney Gregg Harper of Rankin County. In 2018, Democratic Rep. Michael Ted Evans captured 36.7% of the vote against Republican District Attorney Michael Guest.

Those two elections, both for open seats, were the best Democrats could do in the 3rd District since congressional redistricting following the 2000 U.S. Census.

There are contested races on Nov. 8 in all four of the state’s U.S. House seats. In the 2nd District, Democratic incumbent Bennie Thompson is a favorite to win re-election. In the other three, including the 3rd, the Republicans are the heavy favorites.

Still, Democrat Shuwaski Young, grandson of a leader in his native Neshoba County, says he believes he can be victorious on Nov. 8 against the incumbent Guest.

“I’m actually running in this race because I honestly believe … I’m the best person to lead the 3rd Congressional District, not only from an economic standpoint in bringing new business into our state, but also can bring a new politics, one of which respects compassion and love for everyone,” Young said on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. Guest has also been invited to appear on the podcast but has not accepted.

On first blush, Guest does appear to have some vulnerabilities. He barely won the Republican primary earlier this year against 2020 election denier Michael Cassidy. Cassidy was the top vote-getter in the primary and was a little more than 2,400 votes short of gaining the majority needed to win the election outright and avoid a runoff against Guest. But after surviving that first primary, the incumbent Guest, with a mammoth campaign cash advantage, easily defeated Cassidy in the runoff election.

Cassidy hit Guest for being one of the few Republicans in Congress to vote for the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by ’s supporters who were intent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. But when Senate Republicans blocked efforts to form the commission, Guest voted against the House optional plan to create a committee solely of House members to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol.

READ MORE: Michael Guest breaks Republican ranks to support Bennie Thompson’s Jan. 6 commission

But Guest has his own election denial bona fides. He voted to block the certification of the November 2020 election result citing voter irregularities, though more than 50 court challenges of the election results — and many before judges appointed by Trump — were denied.

“If we don’t act now, there is nothing to stop these violations from undermining future elections,” Guest said at the time of a filed by the Texas attorney general trying to throw out millions of votes. The lawsuit, which was rejected by the said Democrat Joe Biden “had less than one in a quadrillion to the fourth power” chance of winning the election in four key swing states.

Of the effort to overturn the election by throwing out millions of votes that the courts repeatedly said were valid, Young said, “What we saw in our congressman was someone who failed to recognize and respect and serve democracy as it should have been served on Jan. 6. Michael Guest voted to decertify the 2020 presidential election.”

Guest has a huge financial advantage over Young. According to Federal Elections Commission reports, Guest has spent $1.4 million since July 2021, and boasts a cash on hand total of $149.152. Young, meanwhile, has spent $67,711 and has cash on hand of $837.

Young worked in the office of the Mississippi Secretary of State during the tenure of Eric Clark and among other duties conducted training for local election commissioners. Young also worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security overseeing a domestic terrorism awareness program.

Guest, age 52, served as district attorney for Rankin and Madison counties in suburban Jackson from 2008 until 2019 when he was elected to his current position. Guest ran for and won the open 3rd District seat when the incumbent Harper opted not to seek re-election.

Guest, according to his campaign website, is committed to “conservative values and support for free market economic policies of lower taxes, few regulations, and promoting our constitutional freedoms and liberties, including the right to life of the unborn and our 2nd Amendment rights.” He also stresses the need for tight control of U.S. borders to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

Guest has sent mixed messages of the issue of abortion. He supported the successful effort to overturn that provided a national right to an abortion. He said the issue of abortion should be left up to the states to decide. But soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he signed on as a co-sponsor of federal legislation that would ban most abortions after six weeks and would not provide an exception for rape.

Guest did not respond to Mississippi Today’s effort to glean clarification on the abortion issue.

Young has said he supports Congress passing a law essentially reinstating the Roe v. Wade abortion parameters that granted a right to an abortion in the first trimester.

For the most part, Guest has been a solid vote for the Republican leadership. He recently voted against the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that was opposed by all Republican members of the Mississippi congressional delegation except U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.

“Roads, bridges, broadband, ports, rail, and clean water are the building blocks of a healthy . This legislation focuses on those core priorities, and I am happy to see it finally signed into law,” Wicker said at the time.

“Mississippi will soon see major investments in our state’s hard infrastructure, including $3.3 billion for roads and highways, $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs, a minimum of $100 million for broadband infrastructure, $283 million for water infrastructure, and significant funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects and port and rail improvements.”

In contrast, Guest said on WJTV of his vote against the infrastructure bill: “I believe that we need to balance investment and infrastructure with being fiscally responsible, and so while there were parts of the infrastructure bill that I supported, the money that was going to roads and bridges, water and sewage, money to expand rural broadband, there were also other parts of the bill that Mississippi will not benefit from.”

Guest also opposed the continuing resolution funding the U.S. government even though the legislation had $20 million for the work on the beleaguered Jackson water system. Guest has said he supports providing federal funds to help improve the system, but said the continuing resolution contained many other items he opposed.

Young said he has challenged Guest to debate, but the incumbent will not respond.

“He can’t answer why he voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He can’t answer why he voted against the Freedom to Vote Act,” said Young, pointing out other “no” votes by Guest including on the Violence Against Women Act.

Young said he supports tax breaks for small businesses and protecting Social Security.

He said a Mississippi congressman “can’t be too far right. They can’t be too far left. I think that is what I can do.”

In the other three congressional races:

  • 1st District incumbent Republican Trent Kelly faces Democrat Dianne Dodson Black, an Olive Branch small business owner. She is the first African American woman to serve as a major party nominee in the district in the modern era.
  • 2nd District incumbent Democrat Bennie Thompson faces Republican Brian Flowers of Clinton. Flowers, a Navy veteran, works in mechanical planning at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant near Port Gibson.
  • Republican Mike Ezell faces off against Democrat Johnny DuPree in the 4th District. Libertarian Alden Patrick Johnson also is on the ballot. Ezell, the sheriff of , defeated incumbent Steven Palazzo earlier this year in the Republican primary, DuPree, former mayor of Hattiesburg, also has unsuccessfully for governor and secretary of state. In 2011, DuPree became the first African American major party nominee for governor.

The ballot also will include judicial races. Four Court of Appeals races are on the ballot. In the only contested Court of Appeals race, incumbent 4th District Judge Virginia Carlton is being challenged by Bruce Burton.

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

Mississippi Republicans announce minority, women outreach initiatives

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Mississippi Republicans announce minority, women outreach initiatives

The Mississippi Republican Party, touting its unifying conservative values, kicked off a minority outreach initiative Wednesday outside of party headquarters in downtown Jackson.

The party also announced an initiative, led in part by Lynn Fitch, to try to increase the number of women elected officials in the state.

At the event, attended by about 20 African Americans, party officials said Republicans and Mississippians of all races hold the same conservative values.

“There is more that connects us than divides us,” said Rodney Hall of Southaven, the chair of the GOP outreach committee.

Fitch, whose office defended the Mississippi law that led to the decision that repealed a national right to an abortion, said: “We are very conservative about life. We are conservative about family … Now more than ever, Republican values are needed.”

In Mississippi, perhaps more so than in any state in the country, the vast majority of white residents vote Republican while most Black residents support the Democratic Party. African Americans comprise about 38% of the total state population — the highest percentage of any state in America.

There are few elected Black Republicans in the state and none in the Legislature.

At the event, state Republican Party leaders did not address some of the issues that African American elected officials often stress, such as the need to expand to provide coverage for about 250,000 primarily working Mississippians. Republican leaders have blocked those efforts, leaving Mississippi as one of only 12 states in the nation not ensuring health care coverage for poor workers.

Another issue where there have been policy differences is on the elimination of the tax on groceries, the highest of its kind in the nation. Efforts to eliminate the tax have been blocked in past years by Republican leaders, though it results in poor people, many of them people of color, paying a larger percentage of their income in taxes. Plus, many have cited efforts of Republicans to ban the teaching of as an effort to prevent the teaching of the impact of racism on the history of the state and nation.

Fitch did endorse providing Medicaid coverage for mothers for one year after giving birth. Currently, the state Medicaid program only provides 60 days of postpartum coverage, though the Biden administration mandated a year of coverage as part of the federal emergency order.

Many Mississippi Republicans have opposed expanding health care for poor mothers.

“We as Mississippi Republicans are eager to grow our party,” party Chair Frank Bordeaux said in a news release. “We know our plans and policies to reduce inflation, lower taxes, cut wasteful spending, secure our borders, invest in national defense, and restore American energy are appealing to all Americans. We’re going to take that message to communities where Republicans have not traditionally been as successful in order to recruit, train, and elect a more diverse group of candidates and bring thousands more freedom-loving Mississippians into our party.”

Fitch said there have been only four women elected to statewide “constitutional” office in Mississippi, and just 15% of the majority Republican Legislature is comprised of women.

There have, however, been six women elected statewide: Nellah Bailey as , Julia Henrich Kendrick as Supreme Court clerk, Evelyn Gandy as lieutenant governor and treasurer, Amy Tuck as lieutenant governor, Cindy Hyde-Smith as commissioner of agriculture and commerce, and Fitch as attorney general and treasurer.

Hyde-Smith is currently serving in the U.S. Senate as the first woman from Mississippi elected to federal office.

The posts of tax collector and Supreme Court clerk have been eliminated as elected offices.

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

Question in mental health lawsuit has implications beyond Miss.

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‘A screeching halt.’ Judges’ question in mental health lawsuit has implications beyond Mississippi

Mississippi’s long-running mental health could trigger an upheaval in how legal protections for people with disabilities are enforced, potentially reducing pressure on and local governments to guarantee disabled Americans equal access to services. 

The Department of Justice sued Mississippi six years ago claiming it had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by institutionalizing people with mental illness instead of providing community-based services. A district judge sided with the federal government, approved a remedial order for the Department of Mental Health and appointed a special monitor to oversee the agency’s compliance. The state appealed that ruling last year, arguing that the mental health system had already made improvements and that the district court had wrongly imposed “perpetual federal oversight.”

But the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that will hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday is interested in a much more fundamental question: whether the Department of Justice could legally have sued Mississippi at all. 

If the judges decide the answer is no, that would create a split with another federal appeals court. Then the question could wind up in front of a that is deeply skeptical of federal authority and willing to overturn long-standing precedents like

For years, federal lawsuits like the one against Mississippi have been the major vehicle pushing state and local governments to offer equal access and services to people with disabilities, which is required under Title II of the ADA. 

The panel’s decision to pose a question that neither Mississippi nor the Justice Department raised in their own briefs suggests the judges are interested in changing that. 

“The disability community is extremely worried,” said Ira Burnim, legal director at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. 

Burnim co-authored an amicus brief by several national organizations advocating for people with disabilities or mental illness. The brief, submitted before the panel raised the question of whether the Justice Department should have been able to sue at all, argued that Mississippi had violated Title II and that oversight was necessary to ensure the state expanded community-based mental health services.  

“The Department of Justice’s ability to bring lawsuits is critical to the enforcement of Title II,” he continued. 

Accessibility at public buildings like courthouses, accommodations for hearing-impaired people to participate in juries, and wheelchair lifts on public buses are all areas where the Justice Department could sue under Title II.

The law has also been applied more broadly. In the 1999 case Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court ruled that “undue institutionalization” violates Title II because depriving people of the chance to live in their community constitutes discrimination. The Justice Department has relied on that precedent to force states to provide community-based services for people with mental illness. 

From 2009 to 2016, the department was involved in 50 such cases, including the Mississippi suit.

The judges assigned to hear the Mississippi case are Edith Jones, James Ho and Leslie Southwick, all Republican appointees to the most conservative appeals court in the country.

The language of Title II does not explicitly say the can sue state and local governments to enforce it, while other parts of the ADA do. But the Justice Department has initiated lawsuits to enforce Title II since it came into effect in 1992, and it has argued that Congress clearly intended the attorney general to have the authority to compel state and local governments to comply with nondiscrimination law if they won’t do so on a voluntary basis.

If the Fifth Circuit panel determines that the Justice Department could not have sued Mississippi, that ruling would conflict with a recent ruling by the Eleventh Circuit in a Florida lawsuit.

Like the Mississippi case, that federal lawsuit involved claimed Florida was unnecessarily institutionalizing mentally ill or disabled people.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected Florida’s argument that the Justice Department could not sue it directly. Florida then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that federal Title II lawsuits can affect “virtually all state and local activities and programs.”

“Through lawsuits brought against states under Title II, the United States has asserted sweeping authority to reshape all manner of state programs, shifting the balance of federal-state power,” the state’s petition said. 

The Supreme Court recently declined to hear the Florida case. But if the Fifth Circuit reaches a different conclusion from the Eleventh Circuit, the highest court may step in. 

“This is pure speculation, no one knows the reason for the Fifth Circuit action, but one possibility here is that if the Fifth Circuit were to find that DOJ lacked authority to bring lawsuits in federal court to enforce Title II, then there would be a circuit split and it would make it more likely that the Supreme Court would accept a case that raised that issue,” Burnim said. 

In addition to the mental health lawsuit, the Department of Justice has pursued legal action against Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Jackson, and other cities and counties to enforce compliance with Title II. In most cases, that action resulted in a settlement agreement rather than a years-long lawsuit.

If the Justice Department were unable to sue states directly, individuals or organizations representing a group of such individuals could still sue. But these lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive, and the Justice Department has the staff, expertise and resources to see them through, said Clarence Sundram, an attorney and expert on institutions and community services for people with mental disabilities.

“Many times private individuals will complain to the DOJ to invoke its assistance in these kinds of cases for precisely these reasons,” said Sundram.  “So to rule that DOJ doesn’t have the authority could one very significant avenue of enforcing these laws.”

Advocates for with mental illness will be watching the case closely, too.

Joy Hogge, executive director of the nonprofit Families As Allies, which advocates for kids with behavioral health challenges, said she has seen “genuinely good things happening” in the state’s mental health system under the remedial order. But all of that has been directly linked to the lawsuit, she said. If the order were overturned – which the Fifth Circuit could do even if it doesn’t reject the Justice Department’s authority to sue states under Title II – she’s not sure progress will continue. 

“I’m afraid that everything might just come to a screeching halt,” she said. 

The Fifth Circuit website says the court aims to issue opinions within 60 days of oral arguments.

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

‘We’re 50th by a mile.’ Experts tell lawmakers where Mississippi stands with health of mothers, children

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‘We’re 50th by a mile.’ Experts tell lawmakers where Mississippi stands with health of mothers, children

A panel of lawmakers trying to come up with policies to help women and children post- ban heard a familiar refrain from experts Tuesday: Mississippi ranks worst or near-worst in infant and maternal mortality, poverty, hunger, access to and child care and many other pertinent statistics.

“… This means 39% of children in Mississippi belong to households with no full-time working parent,” said Heather Hanna, assistant research professor at the Mississippi University Social Science Research Center. “… 43% of Black children in Mississippi live in poverty … Women in Mississippi have higher rates of educational attainment than men, yet earn less.”

The disheartening stats from various experts continued for much of the day — 46% of Mississippi children are in single-parent homes. One in five children experienced hunger in the last year. Nine out of 1,000 babies in Mississippi die. In the rural Delta, there are 4,000 children for every one pediatrician — statewide that number drops only to 2,000 per — and many counties have no OB/GYN. Many mothers do not receive proper prenatal or postpartum care. Mississippi has alarming rates of premature, low-weight babies being born.

Young women have problems obtaining or affording long-acting, reversible contraception. The state Health Department is estimating Mississippi will see an additional 5,000 unplanned pregnancies a year now that abortions are banned here.

The Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families opened the first of four planned hearings with an examination of the extent of the problem. The committee was announced by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann after the in June struck down longstanding Roe v. Wade and a dormant Mississippi abortion ban on the books subsequently took effect. Hosemann said it’s now incumbent on lawmakers to come up with policies to help mothers and children. House Speaker Philip Gunn has also created a commission with a similar charge.

“As a state we are in the wrong place on a lot of lists,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor at the , told the nine-member, bipartisan committee on Tuesday.

Dr. Daniel Edney, director of the state Department of Health, showed lawmakers a chart with a national report card that ranks states on numerous health issues.

“We’re not just 50th,” Edney said. “We’re 50th by a mile. I think if we had 60 states we’d be 60th … The Department of Health is absolutely committed to work with you and do whatever it takes to get us off the bottom.”

Tuesday’s hearing was open to the public and the committee is asking for written testimony from the public, which can be emailed to WCFStudyGroup@senate.ms.gov. The comments will be presented to the full committee.

A large part of the hearing’s audience — many of those who were not lobbyists or government staffers — walked out of the hearing, holding hand-made signs, briefly mid-morning Tuesday to hold a press conference organized by leaders of organizations representing Black women. Black women and babies experience a disproportionate share of the state’s highest-in-the-nation rates of stillbirth, low birth weight, and infant mortality. They said the statistics about the state’s problems are old , and the title of the press conference was “We are the Data.” They complained about a lack of Black women on the Senate committee — only one of the nine members — and among Tuesday’s presenters.

They want to see some action from lawmakers, and many had come to call on lawmakers to extend postpartum coverage for mothers — a subject of much debate in Mississippi over the last year.

“What we’re asking for here is just a right to life,” said Angela Grayson, lead organizer for Black Women Vote Coalition and advocacy and outreach coordinator for The . “The data is here. The data shows that this is good legislation and that that is what we need here in Mississippi for Black women to be able to go through the childbirth experience and not have the unnecessary burdens of inadequate health care.”

In Mississippi, about 60% of births are to women on Medicaid. The Senate in this year’s legislative session attempted to extend standard postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months, an effort to help combat high maternal mortality rates and other health problems for mothers and children. The House shot down the proposal, with House Speaker Philip Gunn linking extension of postpartum coverage to general Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Gunn and other Mississippi Republicans have fought Medicaid expansion under “Obamacare” for years, and Mississippi remains one of 12 states that has not expanded coverage.

On Tuesday, Woodward, Edney and other presenters voiced support for extending postpartum Medicaid coverage.

Mississippi Medicaid Director Drew Snyder, when asked his opinion on extending postpartum Medicaid coverage, to sidestep the question with a lengthy word salad. But he noted that extending postpartum coverage is “a different” discussion from general Medicaid expansion under the ACA and said, “I don’t think it poses long-term sustainability questions like ACA expansion does.”

Snyder advised lawmakers considering postpartum extension: “if you do it, do it because you believe it will help mothers and children, don’t do it because others say you’re being cruel and heartless.”

Sen. Nicole Akins Boyd, R-Oxford, is chair of the new Study Group on Women, Children and Families, which will continue hearings on Wednesday, then on Oct. 25 and 26.

Boyd said part of Woodward’s presentation stood out to her.

“She said that a 20% decrease in low-birth-weight babies at UMMC’s (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) would save about $8 million a year,” Boyd said. “Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage would cost about $7 million, so that would pay for it.”

Mississippi Today staff writer Isabelle Taft contributed to this report.

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

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