The Lighthouse’s “Under the Dome” series is officially back as we follow a slate of 2022 legislative sessions opening across the Southeast. As before, we’ll be closely watching for bills in many states coming down the pipe that impact the health, finances, safety and personal freedom of Black girls, women and the people who are in community with them. We’ll be opening our series this year with an expectant look at the legislative session in our own home state, Mississippi—which will likely mirror other legislative sessions across the South.
Starting off, it looks to be a busy year, with the Legislative Black Caucus and a handful of white Democrats squaring off against the dominant GOP on issues pertaining to teacher pay raises, redistricting, legal marijuana, endless attempts at more devastating tax cuts and the GOP’s trumped-up war on teaching the cold, hard truth about U.S. history in public schools.
Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory is an academic notion premised on the acknowledgment that racism is not merely the outcome of racists acting racist, but intrinsic in U.S. legal systems and policies. This academic principle can occasionally be found in college curricula and classes leading to law degrees, but its concepts are too complex to be taught in K-12 schools. There are currently no reports of CRT being taught in Mississippi public schools, but that doesn’t stop GOP politicians from beating their voters into a frenzy over the concept to drum up vote participation.
There are currently no reports of CRT being taught in Mississippi public schools …
Last month, DeSantis announced a legislative proposal to “stop w.o.k.e. activism and critical race theory in schools and corporations,” likely because he and Mississippi’s own politicians would rather Black and white students not know the truth—in the name of racial peace and unity, of course. Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, similarly, pulled out the time-worn ploy virtually screaming commies, commies, commies, claiming CRT “has deep and explicit roots in Marxism,” and promised Mississippi “can expect new legislation coming down out of Mississippi committees looking to restrict the teaching of CRT.”
“It’s red meat for certain voters,” said Stan Flint, managing partner of lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group. Flint said he expects legislators to compete over who hates CRT the most this session. A quick scan of the state website reveals Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, could not wait to submit HB 437 this session. Her bill bans the teaching of CRT in public schools, and you can expect her (and legislators like her) to dress up their anti-truth effort with honest-sounding language and fluff, like Currie’s own “TRUE” Act. That’s the “Teaching Racial and Universal Equality,” Act.
Legal Medical Marijuana
Mississippi is late to the party when it comes to marijuana legalization, and this has nothing to do with the will of its voters. Mississippians overwhelmingly passed Initiative 65 during the 2020 national election, which would have legalized medical marijuana in the state. But the Mississippi Supreme Court shot down the ballot initiative and six other ballot initiatives, including efforts to expand Medicaid in the state, allow early voting, reinstate a racist state flag, and to approve marijuana for outright recreational use. The court behaved at the urging of entrenched Madison city Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, who probably envisions pot dispensaries polluting her vaunted city streets and attracting the wrong kind of customers.
After the courts destroyed arguably the most democratic process available to the state, voters charged the conservative state legislature to create a watered-down version of Initiative 65, but Gov. Tate Reeves keeps undermining the process by picking apart marijuana bills coming from the House and Senate. The most recent sticking point is over the allowed dosage. Reeves wants it lowered below national standards, and legislators are still having to work to reach an agreement with the governor’s 1940’s-era anti-pot mentality, despite already agreeing to lower the dose.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell recently told the Mississippi Free Press has yet to reach a clear agreement with the governor. “We’ve presented what we thought was reasonable,” Blackwell said. “The amount has not changed. It’s still 4 ounces right now.”
Blackwell assured the bill allows counties and municipalities to opt out of the program, so “Queen Mary” Hawkins Butler of Madison can still have her way, but the threat of a governor’s veto still looms large over the bill.
Even though a clear majority of legislators approve legalizing marijuana in some form or other, Flint told The Lighthouse it was not clear there were enough legislators to provide the two-thirds majority vote requirement to overrule the governor’s veto.
Reeves knows medical marijuana is popular among state voters, however, and is working hard to duck addressing the issue in public. The Facebook Group “We Are the 74” posted video last year of a parent with a child who could benefit from medical marijuana facing down Reeves in public. Reeves ran like an Olympic sprinter from both the parent and the wheelchair-bound child, after doing everything he could to first ignore them and then dismiss them.
“We need (this child’s) medicine and we need it soon,” the parent said.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m working really hard on (calling a special session to address the issue),” Reeves assured the woman. But he never called the session.
It should be noted here that marijuana possession is a very effective way for members of law enforcement to track and arrest minorities, particularly Black people. The ACLU reports that in Mississippi, Black people were 3.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, which reflects an evolving arrest disparity of 69 percent over 10 years. In Kentucky, that disparity was 145 percent; in Alaska, an unforgivable 384 percent. So while medical marijuana may be popular with voters, law enforcement is definitely putting marijuana’s illegitimacy to good use busting non-white folks.
Teacher Pay Raises/Tax Cuts
After only four, middling pay raises since 2007, Mississippi has the lowest average teacher salary of any state in the U.S., and for that (and other reasons, many argue), the state suffers a serious teacher shortage. Education-monitoring nonprofit Mississippi First reports the state also suffered a 32% decline in education graduates, which of course means a 32 percent decline in new teachers. Teachers that do graduate have very little reason to stay in the state.
Gov. Reeves sought to raise teacher pay last year, but legislators were unwilling to accept Reeves’ amount or his terms. Then, later last year, Reeves’ December legislative budget recommendation did not appear to address a teacher pay raise at all.
Nancy Loome, executive director of Mississippi Parent’s Campaign, immediately razed the omission. “It’s things like this, the legislative budget recommendation that is so discouraging to teachers that many of them say, ‘I’ve done as much as I can do and I’m going to leave,’” Loome told reporters.
She added that a wrong-headed push by Reeves and other state leaders like House Speaker Philip Gunn to kill the state income tax this year would pillage state coffers and make teacher pay raises and other necessities impossible.
“We’re not going to get a significant teacher pay raise and be able to fund that into the future if we give away a third of our general fund in the way of an income tax cut. That is the biggest threat to a teacher pay raise,” Loome said.
But the state also has an extra $4.2 Billion to spend thanks to federal incentives, including additional, vital unemployment benefits to offset the COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, many GOP Mississippi representatives opposed these stimulus investments, including U.S. Congressman Steven Palazzo, Trent Kelly and Michael Guest, along with Mississippi Republican Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith. The GOP is more than happy to spend the results that came pouring into the state budget, however.
To be clear, many GOP Mississippi representatives opposed these stimulus investments, including U.S. Congressman Steven Palazzo, Trent Kelly and Michael Guest, along with Mississippi Republican Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith. The GOP is more than happy to spend the results that came pouring into the state budget, however.
Flint said much of that extra money is tied irrevocably to infrastructure projects, but a large share of it could easily soften the political environment for teacher pay raises.
There’s certainly more to Mississippi’s legislative session than these issues. The Lighthouse will also be watching for new laws—both good and bad—pertaining to women’s health, especially with the state’s mostly male and white representatives itching to do away with abortion and many forms of birth control and family services. We’ll be paying painful attention this year as the Supreme Court prepares to gut or destroy Roe v. Wade, the legal decision making the right to abortion mandatory in every state.
Readers can also expect COVID-19 to continue to be a serious issue this session, and potentially even slow or shutdown legislative work altogether. As the session opened this week, the state’s lieutenant governor, Delbert Hosemann, announced he had tested positive for the virus and was self-isolating to protect those around him.
Check back at the end of every week for more updates in the state of Mississippi and elsewhere.