District 38 Rep. Cheikh Taylor speaks, while District 37 Rep. Gary Chism, left, District 16 Sen. Angela Turner-Ford and District 43 Rep. Rob Roberson listen during a legislative forum Thursday at Starkville Police Department. Legislators spoke about the recent special session and answered questions from the audience during the forum. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
September 14, 2018 10:26:25 AM
A new lottery and public education spending dominated Starkville forum where four local legislators spoke about the results of last month's special legislative session.
District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus), District 38 Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville), District 43 Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville) and District 16 Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point) participated in the forum, which the Starkville Daily News hosted in the Starkville Police Department community room.
While the legislators said some good came of the special session, they also seemed skeptical of some of the measures that passed, especially a state lottery.
The lottery is intended to generate up to $80 million in infrastructure funds for the state. Any money generated over the initial $80 million will go toward education spending, classroom supply funds or other educational purposes.
Roberson said he voted for the lottery because it seemed apparent it was something most Mississippians wanted. State voters approved a lottery in 1992, but legislators never permitted one until this year.
However, Roberson said he views it as a "self-tax" and doesn't see it solving any significant problems.
"The reality is, it's not going to do us any real long-term good to consider this silver bullet that's going to solve any problems for us, because it's not," Roberson said. "... I don't want to ... make people think that I went down there and solved the world's problems. I didn't -- we didn't. In all honesty, I think it's something the citizens of our state clearly want and we gave it to them."
Taylor called the lottery a "missed opportunity" for Mississippi's public education system. He also said he's doubtful the lottery will generate enough money for any new revenue to go toward education.
"Getting to that $80 million, that's going to be extremely difficult," Taylor said. "... Whoever is going to do the marketing for this lottery is going to have to bring in people from Louisiana, from Georgia, from all the surrounding states to even get close to us having that $80 million."
Turner-Ford said she understands the need to push for additional infrastructure spending, and noted, for example, that Clay County has closed bridges and roads with "serious" foundational issues. However, she said decisions of the past few years, such as a $415 million franchise tax cut that was billed as a way to make Mississippi more economically competitive, have reduced the amount of money available for other services.
"Keep in mind, based on decisions that we made, leading to now, important public services are not being funded -- mental health, public education," she said. "I understand the point of incentivizing business to come, but when we make decisions and really don't know how we're going to make up what we're not longer collecting, we have to recognize that at some point, there's just not going to be enough money."
Chism, however, answered a question from former District 38 Rep. Tyrone Ellis about whether the legislature would repeal the franchise tax cut.
"It's an election year," Chism said, "and you ain't gonna do nothing about it. It's here to stay."
At another point, Chism said he expects teachers will get a pay raise in the approaching session, because of the approaching 2019 state legislative elections.
"This is an election year," he again said. "I fully expect teacher pay raise to be coming. I fully expect us to come closer to fully funding (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program."
Taylor and Turner-Ford were skeptical, though, about the sincerity of election-year politics.
"I hope it's for the benefit of the citizens of Mississippi," Turner-Ford said. "I hope it's not a political plot, and I would like the gains we could make to stay in place and not be rolled back after the beginning of the next term.
Discussion, at one point, shifted to education scores and how the Mississippi Department of Education has shifted the accountability scoring thresholds each year for the past three years.
Roberson, who is on the education committee, said he understood the frustration with the matter, and that he hoped legislators would soon get to meet with MDE officials to figure out why the standards keep changing and how to prevent it.
"I don't know how you ever measure anything if you keep messing with your system," he said. "There is a real problem, in my opinion, that has to be addressed. Now what that answer is, I think we're going to have to sit down with more of the professionals in that field to help us get back on track. You would think MDE would have done that. I can honestly tell you it doesn't make sense to me and it's something that genuinely bothers me."
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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