This year’s chamber of commerce legislative luncheon at Southwest Mississippi Community College had a definite Republican flavor, as Reps. Sam Mims and Vince Mangold, both of the GOP, were the only members of the local legislative delegation to attend and field questions from the crowd.

Both Rep. Angela Cockerham and Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, elected as Democrats, sent their regrets. Cockerham is running to retain her seat as an independent this year.

Questions this year ranged from education to public health to regional cooperation and more.

Health care

Neither Mims nor Mangold would support expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, they said.

Mims said the state already budgets more than $900 million for Medicaidm to serve more than 700,000 Mississippians.

“If we expand Medicaid, we would have a third of our population that would be on Medicaid, and they’d never come off,” Mims said. “We need to look for ways to improve health outcomes ... I don’t think (expanding Medicaid) is the right approach.”

Mangold said a much-promoted idea to rework Medicaid in Indiana, enacted when Vice President Mike Pence was the Hoosier State’s governor, had not worked as predicted.

“They’ve had several tax increases to cover the costs,” Mangold said of Indiana’s experiment. “The state has to put up money to get the federal dollars. If the federal government quit sending those dollars, the state would be left holding the bag,”

Mims promoted instead programs to increase access to health care, including rural scholarships and more spaces for residencies in rural hospitals to bring more doctors to rural areas.

He said chief executive officers of hospitals need to think outside the box to be useful and develop new revenue streams.

“Our rural hospitals need to find a niche, because Medicare and Medicaid are pushing for more outpatient services,” Mims said.

He noted that Franklin County Memorial Hospital is using many of its rooms for swing beds, a transitional placement between hospitalization and discharge to home or a therapy facility.

Education

Mangold noted the legislature’s passage this year of a pay raise for teachers.

“Was it enough? No,” he said. “But it’s a start. We’re running a surplus now, and if that keeps up, in the next few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed another pay raise.”

He said raising pay is critical to addressing the state’s teacher shortage.

“We can’t pay them what they’re worth, but we can try to get close,” Mangold said.

He said promoting and expanding programs that will abate the cost of getting an education degree, such as that which forgives tuition in exchange for teaching in critical shortage areas, would also help, but salary is key.

“If we can give them a salary when they’re starting out that they can make a living on, we can get more teachers in” the profession, Mangold said.

Mims said his sister teaches in DeSoto County, and he understands the need to make teaching in the state more attractive for prospective candidates.

That involves “getting rid of some of the testing, and paying teachers what they deserve,” Mims said.

Mangold said improvements in educational achievement, like the gains posted by state fourth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, will lead to moving more Mississippians out of poverty, as well.

In both education and poverty rankings, “I don’t think we’ll stay 50th long,” Mangold said. “We have 50,000 jobs needing people. Some people need more skills, and that’s where the community colleges come in, to train folks.

“It all goes back to education. The days of getting out of high school and getting a job are going away. You need skills to get a job. That’s what employers look for ... I think we’ll move off the bottom.

Regional cooperation

Mims said the state had done Southwest Mississippi a big favor by recognizing Scenic Rivers Development Alliance as a state entity.

Local officials here “realize that we need to bring a regional approach,” Mims said.

He credited Scenic Rivers with keeping Quail Hollow Golf Course open, helping to bring $3.2 million for additional development of the Gateway Industrial Park and getting $500,000 to help develop property at Okhissa Lake.

Other issues:

• Community college funding: “We will continue to fund our community colleges. Our community colleges like Southwest do a great job,” Mims said.

• Infrastructure: Mims said he believes local governments, including McComb and Pike County will be able to increase their maintenance and improvement of roads and bridges thanks to the funding mechanism tied to internet sales taxes that passed in a special session of the legislature last year.

• Sales taxes on groceries: “I can see where (eliminating the tax) would help the consumer,” Mangold said. But, “cities need to pay for police and firefighters. Groceries are a big piece of the pie. Cities still need that money to come in.”

• Alcoholic beverage control: “I don’t think the system will change anytime soon,” Mims said. “It brings the state millions of dollars. We’ve had no discussions about changing that structure.”

• Robocalls: “The Public Service Commission is trying to stop that and looking at some technology to try to work on that,” Mims said.

“Don’t answer,” Mangold added.

• Drivers license renewal: “I don’t know what to do, but we’ll try,” Mangold said. “I think everybody retired on the same day. One day there were lots of people working, and the next day just a handful. The Highway Patrol just didn’t have enough people to fill the seats.”

He said the license agency has started allowing appointments on Saturdays for new drivers who need road tests.

“We can’t fix it overnight. Please be patient,” he said.

• Public Employees Retirement System: “There’s $23 billion in the program. My dad is on it, and he gets a check. It’s safe, trust me,” Mims said.

• Working with Jim Hood as governor: “We’d do what we can,” Mangold said. “If what we pass, he didn’t agree with, he’d veto it. Then everything would be about, can we override? I don’t think we’d get a lot done.”

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