House District 31 Representative Otis Anthony (D) speaks during last week's Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus press conference. (Photo by Jeremy Pittari | Magnolia Tribune)
Medicaid expansion, ballot initiative restoration, criminal justice reforms and more all on the group’s list of priorities for this year.
Last week, members of Mississippi’s Legislative Black Caucus gathered in the Capitol rotunda to share their legislative goals for this session. The group’s priorities include access to affordable healthcare, more education opportunities, criminal justice reform, and the passage of legislation to restore the ballot initiative, among other issues.
State Senator Rod Hickman, a Democrat from Senate District 32, said the caucus is seeking solutions “in the simplest way possible.” He said issues impacting their communities have been ignored and pushed aside for so long that they have become vast and pronounced.
“It is our only option to present simple solutions,” said Hickman at the press conference.
MLBC Main Goals
To reach their goals, Hickman called for access, reform and management:
- Access to healthcare and a ballot initiative
- Reform of the criminal justice system and fair judicial redistricting
- Proper management of state funds.
While efforts are underway through the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi office, Hickman and the caucus still want to see even more broadband access in the rural areas of the state.
According to BEAM, under the BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment) federal grant program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Mississippi will receive roughly $1.2 billion to reach the approximately 300,000 unserved locations across the state.
During the press conference, Senator Hickman said new Speaker of the House Jason White (R) indicated to him that ballot initiative legislation would be introduced that week, which it was. However, the House bill included provisions that would restrict ballot initiatives on abortion and other types of legislation, a move Hickman and much of the black caucus oppose.
“We applaud the urgency of this matter because we have delayed the inevitable for much too long. Mississippians deserve to be able to have direct say in our government’s decisions,” Hickman said.
The Senator added that he would like to see a “clean bill” without limits on ballot measures while also including a reasonable signature threshold.
Criminal Justice, Judiciary Reforms
Reforms to the criminal justice system are also on the agenda for the Mississippi Black Caucus.
Hickman stated incarceration rates in Mississippi are the highest in the country, leading to a prison population that is near capacity and associated costs rising. He said even with so many people being held in prison, communities aren’t safer. Senator Hickman is calling on state leaders to implement data-driven practices that include violence prevention and public safety strategies.
Along the lines of making changes to the state’s criminal justice system, Hickman said the black caucus wants to see more diversity in the judiciary system because they believe it enhances perspectives and provides varying viewpoints.
“Diverse judiciaries produce better justice,” Hickman told the press.
Healthcare and Medicaid Expansion
Healthcare is another area where the caucus wants to see improvement, and expanding Medicaid is part of that strategy for the group.
State Representative Otis Anthony, a Democrat from House District 31, said the black caucus is lobbying for expansion of Medicaid in the state, especially to help those in the areas he represents.
“Where emergency rooms have been the only option for so many,” Anthony described, noting that in those areas, there isn’t a single medical clinic within a 60-mile radius.
“We are talking about working Mississippians who need healthcare and cannot afford it. We’re talking about those who go to work every day where their employers do not provide healthcare services, they need this Medicaid expansion,” Anthony elaborated. “A healthier workforce is crucial to the state’s economy. Listen, everyone should have equal access to healthcare. However, that is not a reality for most people currently living in rural Mississippi.”
Governor Tate Reeves (R) has repeatedly said he does not support Medicaid expansion. Yet, it is expected to be a point of discussion during this legislative session among lawmakers as both chambers’ leadership appears willing to have the debate.
Rep. Anthony said the caucus is also advocating for better pre- and post-natal services to help address the infant mortality rate in the state. A key to those services could be expanding access to broadband access in rural areas. He said it not only gives people in those areas the ability to utilize telehealth services but leads to more education and economic opportunities in those underserved areas.
To address the state’s nursing shortage, Rep. Anthony proposed a loan repayment program for the healthcare workers.
Jobs and the Economy
But the caucus did not stop there. Rep. Anthony said the black caucus wants to see an increase in the number of accountants, electrical linemen, construction supervisors, electricians and plumbers, and more. He said developing education policies and funding opportunities that are equally spread throughout the state is essential.
“Mississippi has the potential to greatly boost the economy if we put our money in the right place. We must invest in developing educational policies that work with, not against, students that need the most support,” Anthony said.
Rep. Anthony concluded his remarks by reciting a portion of Governor Reeves’ inaugural address given earlier in the month.
“As our governor said in his inaugural address, he said, and I quote, ‘And let us relentlessly recruit new jobs not just to our prosperous counties, but to all of our communities. That fact is that everything we do we do together. There is no black Mississippi, or white Mississippi. There is no red Mississippi or blue Mississippi, there is only one Mississippi, and it is Mississippi forever,'” Rep. Anthony said, adding, “And if that is true, the proof will be where this state puts its money. We will see, because where our treasures are, our heart will be also.”