Voters gave Republicans greater control over the Mississippi Legislature.
What will they do with this increased power -- play politics or push for progress?
The last four years, with slightly less control, the Republican majority made fiscal progress by eliminating reliance on one-time funding for ongoing expenditures and slowing the upward trend in bonded indebtedness. They passed improvements to education such as the third-grade reading gate and a limited pre-school program. They improved funding for workforce training. And they made important changes to reduce prison population.
But they also got distracted by political issues. The huge fight over Common Core was and remains primarily a political issue since alternative education standards line up almost verbatim with Common Core. The pretend effort to slash taxes at the end of the last legislative session was election year politics at its finest. The temporary tax credit window for major retail developments was a political boondoggle.
Meanwhile, as Sun Herald writer Paul Hampton noted, "Mississippi's unemployment rate is higher than the national average. Its median income is significantly below the national average. It has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation. It ranks at or near the bottom in virtually every public education measure."
Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves gave a hint about their views for the future when they told The Clarion-Ledger that "expanding GOP ranks, particularly in the House, will enable Republicans to pass policy that has been log-jammed by Democrats, such as tax cuts or appointing, instead of electing, school superintendents."
That sounds more like politics than a push for progress that will improve Mississippians' lives.
We will know soon, though, if Republican legislators will act responsibly.
With the election over, the Mississippi Economic Council will unveil its study on our crumbling highway infrastructure. It is expected to not only describe the problems but also offer alternatives for financing improvements. This will test the mettle of Republican legislators since good roads are critical to business growth and prosperity.
Then there is K-12 education, the critical issue for our children's future. Reeves and Gunn have said they want to revamp school funding to put more money into classrooms versus administration and to reward high-performing districts. The reality is that no single solution works for every school district. Some desperately need preschool programs. Others need more competent teachers or administrators, reading assistants, smaller classrooms, or better facilities. Fast growing districts need funding to keep up with growth.
GOP legislators must balance school funding that is flexible enough to meet local needs with demands for better performance. The response to poor performance, however, cannot be less funding that penalizes children. Rather, those responsible for poor performance should be held accountable.
Not to diminish the importance of universities, community colleges and health care to Mississippians' lives, Republican legislators' actions on highways and K-12 education will show whether they are more apt to play politics or push for progress.
Write Bill Crawford, a syndicated columnist from Meridian, at firstname.lastname@example.org