With this year’s legislative session now closed, area legislators have taken inventory of what they’ve accomplished and started to look forward to the next time their bodies convene.
Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, announced the approval of Senate Bill 2971, authored by Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, that includes funding for two Southwest Mississippi projects: upgrading the Pike County Courthouse and the expansion of the Okhissa Lake project.
The Pike County Courthouse was built in the 19th century and has been renovated three times, in 1917, 1965 and 2001. Mims said the need for a replacement HVAC system and an upgrade to LED lighting is critical, and the state granted the county $500,000 to do so.
The state appropriated $750,000 to allow the Scenic Rivers Alliance to continue land acquisitions, road layouts and other planning at Lake Okhissa.
“Both of these projects will certainly benefit our county and the surrounding area,” Mims said.
““There’s a great deal of excitement about how the Scenic Rivers project will make Okhissa Lake a major tourist destination for Southwest Mississippi, and the needed improvements to our aging courthouse will benefit all citizens of Pike County.”
Rep. Daryl Porter Jr., D-Summit, said he was proud to help Mims alongside the rest of the Southwest Mississippi deligation.
Porter said he was proud of the session overall, noting the teacher pay raise and reform on the availability of identifications for prison inmates close to release.
“We got the teacher pay raise, which is great, but it is nowhere near what they deserve,” he said. “We need to make sure they get what they need and deserve for their work.
“And I was also excited for House Bill 551, which has been signed into law. (The Department of Public Safety) will be providing additional driver’s licenses to recently released inmates. Eight hundred inmates were eligible to be released last year, but they didn’t have a valid license or address, so this is something that will help.”
Porter also noted that though his bill to raise government employee pay by 3% failed, it was later placed into an appropriation bill that succeeded.
“Legislature is one of those things where maybe you don’t have your name on something, but it is your idea, and it is taken and reaches the overall goal so that everybody wins,” he said.
Porter said public education reform, infrastructure funding and Medicare expansion are top on his list in the future.
“I do believe that is something we have to address and fight for in our state. We are turning a blind eye,” he said. “We are the unhealthiest state in the union, and we need to be expanding our Medicaid program to combat that. It won’t be a burden on the taxpayers.”
Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, D-Magnolia, said she believed the session was constructive, also pointing to the teacher pay raise vote.
“We are accomplishing some great things.” Witherspoon said. “I am glad to see the teacher pay raise. It is not where it should be, but it is a start, so I am very proud of that.”
Witherspoon said she is excited that she was able to secure $250,000 for community center and infrastructure repairs in Magnolia, along with money for the police station renovation.
She said she was disappointed that some of bills she advocated for died in committee, such as her bill on domestic violence shelters, but believes it will continue to be an issue brought before the Legislature in the future. She said she would also like to see more post-release programs for parolees, as well.
Witherspoon is currently running for the Magnolia mayor, and if she wins, she will have to step down. She said she came to peace with that possibility..
“It will be a bittersweet moment,” she said of possibly leaving the Legislature. “I will miss being a state senator and the relationships I built, but I am looking foward to being back in my community and helping at a different level.”
Cockerham agreed with the other legislators who praised the teachers raise’s passage, but on a regional level, she pointed to Senate Bill 2971, which gave Wilkinson County $1 million for repairs to a bridge on Jackson Road.
“That bridge is really important for the county and for a lot of the residents, and we were able to get $1 million to make sure that bridge remains open,” she said.
In general, Cockerham said she believed it was a productive session, and was proud to be a part of it.
“Overall I think it was a very good session,” she said. “We were able to get things for all of the counties in our districts. I have a deep love for my district, so I am very proud of the people I represent, and I am just thankful for them to give me this opportunity.
“Last year was rough in so many ways, but I think we are making progress and everyone is working together. That is what it is going to take to get through this.”
She also said she was proud the Legislature passed a bill that allows law enforcement to use vehicles for private security measures, along with a bill that addresses warranty reimbursements. She also praised the Legislature for its swiftness in vaccination distribution and was proud to see the state reopening a bit.