Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Republican Tate Reeves is now the governor of Mississippi, presiding over a deeply red government and a legion of interests looking for pieces of the state government's full coffers. Reeves took the oath of office yesterday in the Mississippi House of Representatives chamber in downtown Jackson, formally accepting the reins from outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant. The inauguration ceremony fell on a particularly uncooperative day, with torrential rains flooding several parts of the capital city. Outside the Capitol, military Humvees ringed the block, with impassive soldiers in camouflage ponchos waiting out the storm.
Reeves addressed the crowd with a message of inclusion and unity that seemed at odds with his history of uncompromising conservatism, the foundation of his campaign for governor against both Republican and Democratic opponents.
"Here is my promise," Reeves told the chamber. "This will be an administration for all Mississippi." The new governor momentarily departed from the soaring language of unblemished harmony to call for the defense of the state's "loving culture" that has "knitted Mississippi's families together, and tied them to each other for ages." Such a culture has made Mississippi special in a "fast-paced and transient world," Reeves said, and must be defended against the "erosion that frays societies."
The more substantive targets of Reeves speech included workforce training and teacher pay, one of Reeves' key platform planks. In recent weeks, legislators have taken an increasingly optimistic stance on the possibility of truly competitive teacher pay. New Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said at a press event in December that he wants Mississippi to exceed, not match regional baselines.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, newly appointed vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, echoed those sentiments. "We have to be ambitious," Blount told the Jackson Free Press in an interview. "We want our best and brightest people to stay in Mississippi, and we want them to consider teaching."
Reeves announced in his address a mission to "give us more national board certified teachers per capita than any state in the nation." Not the Mid-South, or the Southeast, Reeves clarified, but the nation. The session will reveal how much of the bipartisan ambition to invest in Mississippi's teachers pans out. Blount confirmed that HB 1, which funds the remaining $18 million needed for last year's teacher pay raise, was on track for a speedy approval in the Senate.
The first beneficiaries Reeves mentioned in his inaugural speech were the state's foster children. Lea Anne Brandon, communications director at the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, said in an interview that agency leadership gathered to listen to the governor's address. "We were thrilled to hear that comment coming from the governor," she said. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to sit down and share our vision for where we'd like the agency to move." The meeting may address the agency's funding needs, especially after a 2019 PEER report mistakenly suggested an enormous decline in caseworkers.
The discussion with Reeves could have a strong impact on the agency's future. Reeves will appoint the successor to Commissioner Jess Dickinson, whose last day at MDCPS is this week. Dickinson's replacement is tasked with turning around a decline in caseworkers, the acquisition of a new data-management system and meeting the court-mandated standards stemming from the Olivia Y case. That litigation, decided in 2008, enforced a variety of requirements on the agency's predecessor organization, chief among them the reduction of frontline caseloads.
The weather scrapped the day's celebrations, canceling the planned inaugural parade and moving the ceremony inside the Capitol building. But the legislative session, which wraps up May 10, will be as long as inauguration day was short. And the longevity of the cooperative mood at the Capitol remains in question.
"There's always a lot of optimism at the beginning of the term," Blount said.
Email state reporter Nick Judin at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.
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