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Speaker-designate White talks...

Speaker-designate White talks priorities for Mississippi House of Representatives in upcoming term

By: Sarah Ulmer - December 12, 2023

Speaker Pro-Tempore Rep. Jason White, R-West, a member of the Mississippi Joint Legislative Budget Committee, asks a question during a budget presentation by a state agency director, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

State Rep. Jason White, the Republican supermajority’s choice for Speaker, recently sat down with Magnolia Tribune to talk over his priorities as the new House leader when the gavel falls come January 2, 2024.

The official vote for the new Mississippi Speaker of the House of Representatives is expected to take place shortly after members gavel in on January 2, 2024. Jason White, the current Speaker Pro Tempore, is the heir apparent with Speaker Philip Gunn having chosen not to run for re-election.

The expectation that White would move into the role was further solidified in November when he was unanimously selected by the Republican Caucus as its nominee for Speaker. White has served House District 48 for 12 years. State Representative Manly Barton (HD 109) was also selected as Speaker Pro Tempore by the Caucus.

Republicans have a supermajority in the chamber, meaning any prospect of a challenge of White by a Democratic Party nominee would face insurmountable odds.

READ MORE: Mississippi House Republican Caucus officially selects Jason White as Speaker nominee

Magnolia Tribune sat down with Rep. White soon after being chosen by his caucus as Speaker-designate.

“I’m finishing a third term, 12th year. All I’ve known is Speaker Gunn. He’s been the tip of the spear for all we have done in that time, and I’ve always enjoyed serving under his leadership and in that way,” said White.

Moving into his anticipated role as Speaker, White said education, healthcare and PERS are the key issues that come to mind when talking about change. He added that the House plans to continue to take a hard look at the state’s budget, which is currently taking in a much larger amount of money than is being spent. White said that could likely lead to an additional push for more tax relief for Mississippians.

“We feel like we’ve funded critical needs throughout state agencies. We’ve still got some issues in a few we are working through and that will take money,” White said. “Still, you’ll hear from the House perspective, a push for further tax cuts, simply because we keep taking in lots more money.”

White recognized that economic experts anticipate a slowdown in the economy, but also notes that the state has taken in nearly a billion dollars in surplus over the past few years.

Continued Efforts for Further Tax Cuts

White told Magnolia Tribune the House position will be to continue to push for the elimination of the individual income tax, a move in line with attempts made in previous years and supported by Governor Tate Reeves.

Lawmakers passed the largest tax cut in the state’s history in 2022. The legislation, signed into law by Governor Reeves, resulted in the immediate removal of the 4% individual income tax bracket and a phased reduction of the 5% bracket to 4% over the course of three years. By eliminating the 4% bracket, Mississippians now have the largest tax exemption in the nation among states that collect income taxes. The total tax relief provided by the plan is estimated to be $525 million per year by 2026.

Rep. White said there could be an appetite to pass additional legislation that would knock another percent off of that phased reduction, pushing the flat income tax closer to two or three percent when the current reduction is complete in 2026.

“This is moving us closer to a full elimination of the individual income tax,” said White, who said he felt confident that lawmakers would be supportive of these continued efforts.

Improving the education system

White is also focused on reviewing the state’s education system and improving on the legislation passed in recent years that has led to Mississippi being recognized nationally for significant gains in literacy and graduation rates. White wants to start with a discussion on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the funding formula used to fund public schools, as well as how school and student achievement is measured.

“We are going to take a long hard look at the funding formula and accountability model and the way that we assess schools like the four big tests,” said White. “If we can get away from those and get closer to straight ACT to rate them.”

White, the son of a former public school teacher, expressed a desire to look at opportunities for the accountability model to begin incentivizing and rewarding those school districts that provide alternative tracks aimed at being career ready through certifications and other resources, outside of merely advocating for a four-year-college path upon high school graduation. He said he hopes to see more opportunities for students as young as ninth and tenth grade, who have other interests outside of a traditional college path.

“We do a tremendous job graduating our high school students as college prep ready. The problem is a third of those only go to a four-year university, and roughly half of that third receive a degree. The rest of them learn a trade or do something different,” said White.

Some schools in Mississippi do have robust programs for Career Technical Education, a curriculum for students interested in alternative educational paths. However, Rep. White said those opportunities are primarily within districts who are progressing on their own because of the support they have in their local community. He hopes to make this type of educational access available to high schoolers across the state, particularly in under-served districts.

“When we talk to businesses, whether it be existing or ones we are courting, we are a right to work state, it’s relatively cheap to live in our state, we’ve got some great things going for us. What is lacking is the workforce,” said White, adding that if young high schoolers were exposed to career options outside of what a college degree requires, it could help put them on a streamlined track for success after graduation.

When it comes to educational access, especially for those students in F rated districts, White said he plans to push for additional school choice options, or “parent’s choice” as he said. This could impact not only where students receive an education, but the curriculum provided to those students, particularly those young people who know they are on route for a trade-centered career.

Rep. White said school choice efforts will likely begin in failing districts but could also expand to children in A districts who desire to pursue these alternative tracks. In these scenarios, only state dollars would follow the student and admittance would still be up to the school where they are attempting to enroll. However, White hopes to remove the requirement that the school they are leaving has to release them in order to transfer.

“This isn’t something where you see people flocking away from their traditional schools. This is for parents who are taking the initiative and willing to make the choice on their part,” said White.

White also hopes to take another look at the funding model for public schools. Currently, MAEP remains the model used to fund Mississippi’s schools, but lawmakers have not “fully funded” the formula during the majority of its 20-year existence, instead choosing to appropriate funds for specific educational areas through direct funding. MAEP and its annual funding is an annual point of contention between lawmakers and public school lobbyists.

There was an attempt made by the House in 2018 to change the MAEP model but the effort did not pass in the state Senate.

Improving Healthcare

Going into the 2024 session, Speaker-designate White said lawmakers are still waiting to see whether or not the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) approves the Governor’s new reimbursement proposal for Medicaid recipients that Reeves announced in early fall 2023.

White said if it is approved, the plan will be a good thing, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle.

While White has said he is not in favor of a general expansion of Medicaid, he does see a gap for the working class of Mississippi who are still not able to afford coverage. Currently 1 out of 4 Mississippians are on Medicaid.

“There is no denying we have this gap in any type of coverage for those who work and make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. They are out here in ‘no man’s land,’” said White. “I don’t want to disincentivize them from working. They don’t make enough money to buy traditional insurance; their employers don’t provide it.”

Rep. White’s idea to fill the gap hangs on a partnership between businesses and providers to cover the state share for Medicaid coverage for those working individuals who remain uninsured. The current state share is a 9/1 ratio, meaning Mississippi pays roughly 10% and the federal government covers 90% of the expansion population.

In order for this to happen, CMS would have to provide a waiver with a work requirement for those individuals who qualify to receive Medicaid. White said safeguards would need to be put in place to prevent employers from removing coverage, as has happened in other states, if Medicaid is then seen as an option for their employees.

“I want to force us to have a real conversation, put the smartest people we’ve got in the room and say, ‘Figure this out,’” said White.

He hopes to see business leaders, hospitals, providers and doctors come together to find a solution.

“I just think we are being foolish to try not to find a way to fix this,” White said.

Addressing PERS, the State’s Retirement Program

A recent report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) from PERS Director Ray Higgins indicated that change was needed in order to maintain the fiscal health of the program.

PERS, the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, currently provides retirement accounts for 114,000 public retirees, with 144,000 active members. However, over the last 10 years, the number of active members has declined by 10 percent while the number of retirees has increased by 26 percent.

In the JLBC budget meeting, Higgins presented the PERS Board’s request for adjustments in order to offset the financial strain on the program.

The recommendation by PERS was to move forward with a 2 percent employer rate increase each state fiscal year starting in July 2024. This increase would occur until the rate reaches the recommended level approved by the board which is expected to be close to a 10-point increase over time.

In addition, the current rate of 17.40 percent of a state employee’s pay would increase to 19.40 percent at the start of the next fiscal year. This plan was previously approved. 

“Either the rate has to go up or the benefit has to change, that would be my assessment or recommendation,” said Higgins in October. “We fund it, change it, or eventually risk it. I wouldn’t say it’s not sustainable, because if we fund it, it is sustainable.” 

The request of a direct appropriation was also made, which could come from the Legislature. The PERS Board’s recommended amount has not been determined at this time, but Higgins said he estimates it would be close to $350 million a year. 

Rep. White said he hopes the legislature is able to tackle the issue come January. However, he does not anticipate that all of the PERS requests will be met outright. Possible solutions could include a cash infusion from the state, a new tier creation, and a possible employer rate increase.

“I don’t know exactly what the answer is there, but I know that it is broken as it is,” said White, whose wife is a PERS retiree. He said his family is directly impacted by what happens with the state’s retirement system.

About the Author(s)
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Sarah Ulmer

Sarah is a Mississippi native, born and raised in Madison. She is a graduate of Mississippi State University, where she studied Communications, with an emphasis in Broadcasting and Journalism. Sarah’s experience spans multiple mediums, including extensive videography with both at home and overseas, broadcasting daily news, and hosting a live radio show. In 2017, Sarah became a member of the Capitol Press Corp in Mississippi and has faithfully covered the decisions being made by leaders on some of the most important issues facing our state. Email Sarah: