From staff and wire reports
PHILADELPHIA — Republican Gov. Phil Bryant took center stage under the old oaks of surrounding the Founder’s Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair and repeated his call for merit pay for teachers, opposition to expansion of the Medicaid program under the Obama health care reforms, and the need for continued caution in state budgeting and spending.
Bryant, as has been every Mississippi governor since A.J. McLaurin in 1896, was the final speaker at the 2012 edition of the 123-year-old campground fair.
The governor used his time at Neshoba to touch on a broad array of subjects, including the possible impact of a Medicaid expansion in Mississippi as called for in the Obama health care reforms. Bryant also talked about economic development and repeated his call for a performance or merit-based pay plan for school teachers.
Bryant said: “Just last week, I gathered with a group of education experts to issue a report that outlines ways to help improve teacher performance in Mississippi classrooms. Performance-based compensation is just one component of education reform that I am pursuing.” The report was generated by MSU.
Later, during a press conference, Bryant said the performance-based merit pay program could be funded by use of existing across-the-board “step” pay increases already available to school districts. “We spend about $3 billion total on education in Mississippi,” said Bryant. “I think we can find the funds from existing expenditures to pay for performance-based incentives for teachers.” He said he favored an initial pilot program in about a half-dozen schools.
Asked about teachers who don’t perform well and their future, Bryant said that while he favors providing opportunities for improvement, the alternatives for some teachers who aren’t performing may be punitive. “The teachers on the other end of the scale, we may just have to get rid of them,” said Bryant. “They may just need to find something else to do with the rest of their careers. The students deserve the best teachers. You find the best teachers and you pay them more.”
On other issues, Bryant repeated his opposition to expanding the Medicaid program in Mississippi and repeated his support for the Mitt Romney GOP presidential campaign.
Bryant also addressed the issue of the failed state bond bill during the 2012 regular session, which impacted several projects at MSU.
“I will call a special session if the lieutenant governor and the House speaker can agree on an amount,” said Bryant. “There are a number of projects that we really need to fund, projects that are critically important to the universities. But we have to be mindful of how bonds are best used and should make sure we’re funding projects that have a life span of at least 20 years, not consumable items like new computers.”
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann talked about the state’s voter ID law and the ongoing effort to overcome Justice Department opposition to the law based on voter suppression concerns. Hosemann said: “Some days I feel like I’m dealing with the ‘Real Housewives of the Justice Department.’”
But Hosemann said that he expects the state to eventually have to litigate the matter and that ultimately, voter ID will be implemented in Mississippi.
State Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who is in the first year of her first term, told fairgoers of her efforts to implement fiscally conservative management of the duties of her office. Fitch said her office had saved taxpayers over $10 million so far during her term.
As the state official perhaps most immediately impacted by the Supreme Court decision upholding the Obama health care reforms, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney used his time at Neshoba to address criticism he received over his role in working to establish a health insurance exchange in Mississippi.
The Obama health care reforms offered states the option of establishing their own exchanges or having the federal government do it for them. Chaney decided it was prudent to establish an exchange under state control. But that decision drew fire from the Tea Party and others working to repeal or replace the Obama health care reforms.
Chaney said: “I don’t want the federal government in Mississippi. Now we’ve got a lot of fringe and political agenda groups seeking to stop the development and implementation of the exchanges in the various states, suggesting to not follow the law, disobey the law.”
Chaney made clear he intended to follow the law regarding the exchanges.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, the first GOP speaker to serve in Mississippi since Reconstruction, spoke Thursday and talked about the new leadership team in state government. Gunn touted successes in working with Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and his own House leadership team to pass laws regulating the outside counsel contracts awarded by Attorney General Jim Hood. Gunn, as did Bryant and Reeves, spoke to his support for public charter schools and said he expects the Legislature to adopt a charter school package in the next legislative session.
Also speaking Thursday were Republican Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, Supreme Court candidates Bill Waller Jr., and Earle S. Banks, and U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Albert N. Gore Jr. of Starkville, Constitution Party challenger Thomas Cramer of Vancleave and Reform Party perennial candidate Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg.
Gore’s speech praised the Obama health care reforms and he also advocated publicly financed campaigns. He received a polite reception from the Neshoba crowd.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo was in Washington on Thursday as Congress was in session, but remains the prohibitive favorite in his re-election bid.