JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said in his State of the State speech Tuesday evening that citizens expect "bold action" from elected officials in 2013, with an emphasis on strengthening education and promoting job creation.
The Republican said he wants lawmakers to approve a broad package of education proposals, including merit pay for teachers, more emphasis on reading in early elementary grades and setting higher academic standards for college students who want to become teachers. Bryant is also seeking approval for charter schools, which would be free from some regulations faced by most other public schools.
"It is imperative that we remember what others have also known — the path to Mississippi's economic success must pass through the school house door," said Bryant, who's starting his second year as governor. He has been discussing most of his education proposals for months.
The three-month legislative session is now in its third week and members of the House and Senate are starting to consider bills. The full Senate passed one version of a charter schools bill last week, and the House Education Committee on Tuesday passed a separate measure. Both chambers must agree on a single version before a bill can go to the governor.
Republican lawmakers stood and applauded loudly when Bryant said he wants to sign a charter schools bill into law. Many Democrats sat silently. Critics say charter schools would drain resources from a school system that's already receiving too little money.
Bryant said about 17 percent of Mississippi students who begin high school never graduate, and about half of the state's third graders are not proficient at reading.
"These facts cannot be swept under the rug or explained away by concluding we just aren't spending enough money on public education," he said. "Make no mistake: These alarming numbers are evidence of a crisis in our education system and are tied directly to our dropout rate, our poverty rate and more. Our very economic stability as a state is threatened if our education system is not improved."
Bryant said job creation must remain a priority. During the speech, he announced that Ashley Furniture will open a mattress manufacturing and customer service center in the north Mississippi town of Verona, creating 60 jobs.
The announcement drew applause from lawmakers and other state officials in a packed House of Representatives chamber, including a standing ovation for Ron Wanek, chairman and co-owner of Ashley. Wanek waved from a balcony, where he was seated among military leaders, lobbyists and state agency directors.
"Ron, you got a bigger round of applause than I did," Bryant said.
Bryant also announced the formation of a nonprofit group that will promote medical jobs. He said the Mississippi Health Care Solutions Institute, led by Jackson cardiologist Dr. Clay Hays, will serve as a Chamber of Commerce, "bringing our medical industry together and supporting health care as an economic driver in our state."
Bryant repeated what he has said for months, that he opposes expansion of Medicaid under the federal health law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010. Such expansion is optional, and Bryant said it would be too expensive, even with the federal government paying most of the tab the first few years. Mississippi has a population of just under 3 million people, and more than 600,000 people are enrolled in Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the needy.
"Let me be clear. Any law that will add 300,000 Mississippians to a federal entitlement program partially funded by the state will either result in a huge tax increase or drastic cuts to education, public safety, job creation and other budgets," Bryant said. "It will leave our children and grandchildren with ballooning federal debt."
In the Democratic response, Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens said Mississippi has an 8.6 percent unemployment rate because Republicans who hold most statewide offices don't have a plan to create jobs.
"It is a sad truth that at a time when so many of our families are struggling with serious kitchen table issues such as paying bills; saving for college and finding work, Mississippi Republicans are fixated on an agenda aimed at deepening the divisions between us rather than calling us to a common purpose," Clark said.
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