By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves sat down with the editorial board of The Meridian Star on Thursday to talk about issues facing Mississippi. After a few brief opening comments, Reeves took questions from the staff.
Reeves: On what he learned during the 2011 campaign
"What we heard repeatedly is that the number one priority in Mississippi has got to be job creation. We're not immune to the challenges that the national economic environment has put upon our state and virtually every other state. We're trying to dig out of it."
Meridian Star: What do you see as the biggest challenge as far as growing the economy in Mississippi?
TR: We have historically had challenges, but we've also had tremendous successes in the last 10 years.
If we can ever convince them (companies) to come to Mississippi, they tend to love what they see. That's everything from the work force to the quality of life, to the tax structure. We really have a good opportunity. That's why you're seeing more and more companies give us a second look. It was Nissan in 2002; it was Severstal in 2006; Toyota in 2007. That's not to mention a large number of others that have occurred.
MS: Does anyone know why it's hard to get them to take that first look?
TR: It's just the perception that many people in other parts of the country have of the state and the overall quality of the potential work force that they have.
Katrina changed the perception of Mississippi for a lot of people that paid attention. America saw the way in which our people reacted to Hurricane Katrina and as Gov. Barbour said, 'Businesses looked at us and said, 'Those are the kind of people I want working for me.'
Another challenge is our education attainment level. You'll hear me talk repeatedly ... the importance of improving the education attainment level of our citizens. It's vitally important. We think there's a multi-pronged approach to doing that.
One we have to invest in our current system. This year in the state Legislature, in the budget that passed we set our priorities, which is the educational system, we saw increases in funding for K-12 of almost $30 million. The first time in five years we saw a year over year increase in K-12 funding.
We saw increases in funding for our community colleges last year and we saw flat level funding for our institutions of higher learning which in effect, those three areas saw flat or increasing year over year expenditures. Everywhere else in state government was cut.
Reeves: On the school ratings system:
Prior to July 1, 2012,"we had seven-tiered rating systems for school districts and schools. Those seven tiers were Star, High-Performing, Successful, and four categories beneath that that I don't even talk about because they're not acceptable. The problem is that the nomenclature of the old rating system didn't necessarily reflect what was going on in the actual school districts.
Going forward, every school district and every school in the state of Mississippi will be rated in one of five ways. An A, B, C, D, or an F.
It's simple. Parents and grandparents can understand it and everybody in Mississippi knows what to expect from an A and everybody in Mississippi knows that we can do better than a C. I think, as simplistic as this seems, it's going to make a huge difference long-term in the quality of our work force, the quality of our education.
Will charter schools be on the legislative agenda next term?
Absolutely. I'm a strong proponent of charter schools. I have said repeatedly that I don't think they are a panacea. I don't think that, in and of themselves, they are going to change the outlook for educational attainment in our state. I think charter schools are another tool in the toolbox in certain areas that can really make a difference. We think we passed a bill in the state Senate last year that addressed the concerns of all those who fought it and most of the people who are against charter schools in Mississippi are against charter schools because they fear the unknown."
The reality is, with charter schools, if you're a kid that lives in New Orleans, you have the charter school option. If you're a kid that lives in the Arkansas Delta, you have a charter school option. If you are a kid that lives in Memphis, Tenn., you have a charter school option. In fact, charter schools are operating in 41 states today. While I understand the fear of the unknown, I am more concerned about that kid that's trapped in a failing public school who has no options.
There are far too many of those in our state and that's just the bottom line. We passed it in the Senate. We passed our charter school bill with support from both Republicans and Democrats. I believe it was 70 percent of the Senate that voted for it. It will be part of the Legislative agenda and I believe we'll pass it in the Senate again and I hope we'll be able to get in the House also.
Were vouchers part of the charter school bill?
A voucher program was not part of our charter school bill specifically. What we did allow is, if a charter school opens, then the state money for that child — the MAEP money — follows the child and we allowed for students in adjoining school districts to move to that charter school if there was an opening.
First of all, there would be no charter school in any community that didn't want it because it has to be driven by a desire of the local community.
What is the state doing about dyslexia?
I didn't fully appreciate until this last year, how big a problem dyslexia is in Mississippi. There are those who suggest, and I don't think anyone knows the exact numbers, that as many as one in five Mississippi school children suffer from some form of dyslexia. In general, on average the IQ of a child with dyslexia in our state, is above average to significantly above average. What we found is that, kids with dyslexia who are having a hard time reading in the third grade, they are not going to be able to do their science in the fourth and fifth grade. They're not going to be able to do their math in the sixth grade. So the likelihood that they are going to end up a statistic — a dropout, is much higher than not.
We passed three bills this year to address this. We mandated going forward that every child in the state will be tested for dyslexia — every single child. This is the first time ever that this has been the case. There is a school in Petal called the 3-D school which is doing a tremendous job with dyslexia. Unfortunately they only have the ability to take 80 students. They take students from school districts surrounding Petal. They take them for a year or two to help the kids to get over the hump that they're having. Then they send them back to their local school district, which is what we want. We made it so that children who go to this school, the MAEP money can follow the child.
We also provided scholarships for any child that's in college that wants to get a master's in dyslexia therapy.
A lot of states have complained about the expansion of Medicaid and the effect it will have on its budgets. You've also got the ballooning cost of pension payments for government retirees. What's the outlook for Mississippi and what can you do to correct it, if anything?
Let's talk about Medicaid first because we can actually make a difference in Medicaid. I try not to get overly political in these meetings. The only way we can stop the expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare is to elect Mitt Romney president in November. Period. That is vitally important because Gov.Romney's plan on Medicaid is what the Republican Governor's Association and many Democratic governors have asked for for years. That is for the federal government to provide a block grant to the states so the states can set up the best Medicaid program for its people.
I think that's what was originally intended by our founding fathers is for states to be sovereign entities. It has been estimated that the expansion of Obamacare could cost as much as $1.6 billion over the next 10 years in our state. That's just in state dollars.
The rising costs of pensions. I sat on the Public Employees Retirement Board for eight years. I'm as familiar with it as anyone. Here's the deal. As complicated as our pension system is; it's really not that complicated. Money going in, plus investment income, has got to equal money going out, over a long period of time.
The problem is, our Legislature in 1999 passed a bill which increased benefits, retroactively for everybody in the system and put no mechanism in place to pay for it.
During the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009 we had two terrible years, but in my opinion it's had very little impact because you look at our 30-year returns, they are over nine and a half percent.
With sales tax revenues up, what will the state do with the extra money?
Let me just tell you that all that money doesn't exist and here's why. We inherited a budget that was extremely dependent on federal money. In fact, during the stimulus package that was passed by the Obama administration — you know the stimulus package that didn't stimulate the economy — the $800 billion expenditures; in last year's budget there was $350 million in federal money that this year will be zero.
So we're digging ourselves out of that hole of being dependent upon federal money. It was used for salaries, a big piece of it was what they called their retaining teachers and the like. To get back to even, we've got to grow by $350 million annually, just to get back to last year's budget numbers.