As a young man, Governor Phil Bryant said he never imagined himself ever running for an office. His heart was in law enforcement and that’s where he planned to be.
“I just wanted to be a deputy sheriff,” said Bryant in an interview. ”I grew up admiring law enforcement. I wanted to be the guy out there fighting the bad guys and protecting the innocent.”
At the beginning of his adult life, Bryant had the opportunity to achieve that goal as a deputy sheriff in Hinds County. During his time there in the 1980’s, he was selected to participate in a group called the Jaycees which allowed him a chance encounter with then President Ronald Reagan at the White House. For Bryant, that was when his goals began to change.
“Meeting President Reagan just changed everything for me. I admired the man so much,” Bryant said. “He talked about what America should be, that shining city on a hill. I came back and said you know, I need to make a difference.”
That epiphany drove him to run for Rankin County Supervisor, a race he lost. That loss, Bryant said, was a blessing because he might never have taken the opportunity to run for the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Bryant was elected to the House in 1991 and served until 1996 when Governor Kirk Fordice appointed him as State Auditor. He was re-elected to that position in 1999 and again in 2003. After his second term as Auditor, Bryant ran for Lt. Governor where he served one term before making his way to the Governor’s office in 2012. Bryant said when he made the move to run for Governor, he was met with an outpouring of support.
“People were saying we would really like for you to get into this Governor’s race. They were afraid we might lose to a Democrat, so we got in and we won,” said Bryant.
Putting Mississippi in the National Conversation
Since his time in law enforcement Bryant has come a long way. Over the last four years in particular, he has developed an unique friendship with President Donald Trump, a relationship that has not only put Mississippi on the map within the national conversation, but solidified his legacy in the state.
Bryant said the support of the President for the state has brought nearly a dozen cabinet members to Mississippi, allowing the rest of the nation to recognize what a great place the Magnolia State really is. He has continued to be a bold supporter of the President and likewise, Trump has shown up on several occasions to stand behind Mississippi Republican candidates for office.
Legislating Hasn’t Changed Much
Reflecting on his time in the House, Bryant said when he first took office in 1991 many of the conversations and legislation revolved around the same things they do now: education, infrastructure, economy.
“It’s amazing how it’s the same thing. We were talking about revenue, we were talking about taxes, we were talking about corrections,” said Bryant. “Everyone was talking about education. It was really broken and everybody thought it had been fixed.”
He said during his time there, conservative administrations made a big difference in the approach taken on many of those issues.
“The needs for the State of Mississippi and how we choose to respond to them really don’t change a whole lot,” said Bryant.
Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development
Around 1993, he was part of the decision to create a Rainy Day Fund. At the time, Mississippi did not have an institutionalized savings account. Since then, the fund is full and has reached a balance of $554 million.
Under Fordice’s leadership, Bryant was part of legislation to reduce taxes particularly on capital gains investments. Bryant said this move began a tremendous amount of investment from corporations into Mississippi.
“We learned if you reduce taxes on corporations, they’ll actually do more. They’ll invest more and they’ll hire more people,” said Bryant.
When Bryant took office as Governor he said it was a strategic move to put an emphasis on bringing large corporations to the state in an attempt to help improve the economy. It was a deliberate effort to continue making Mississippi appealing for out-of-state companies to relocate, bringing jobs and revenue with them.
While Bryant has received criticism from some lawmakers on corporate tax breaks, he says the long-term outcome for Mississippi’s economy to incorporate these cuts is worth it. Even with the criticism, Bryant said corporate income tax is up in Mississippi 24 percent.
“They’re paying almost a quarter more than ever before because corporations are growing and hiring more people. Simply putting people to work has made all the difference.”
Making Great Strides in Education
Education rates have also improved. Third graders are now reading at an 85 percent pass rate, and the graduation rate is at an all-time high of 84.1 percent. Pre-Kindergarten programs have also had a huge impact on first graders entering elementary school.
“It is creating a better Mississippi by all of us being involved in trying to lift the state to the next level, and I think we’ve been able to do that in a substantial way,” said Bryant. “We’re passed a lot of the narrative of the New York Times and others that Mississippi is some ‘back-water’ state. They know better; they’re coming here.”
While tax breaks for companies might have had a massive impact on economic development as one strategy to move Mississippi up on the map, Bryant said it was the Literacy Program his administration put in place that he is most proud of when it comes to reforming education.
When he first took office in 2012 the third grade reading numbers were far below average, with only about 52 percent of third graders able to read before moving to fourth grade.
The program placed nearly 150 reading coaches in the system and also prevented any third grader from moving to the fourth grade without being able to read on the third grade level. This was a bold decision, one that was met with pushback from some administrators who feared it would have a negative impact on children’s self-esteem.
They also passed $100 million into a teacher pay raise and funded national board-certified teachers to the level of being number four in the nation.
“I think the one thing if they look back 100 years from now and say ‘what did Phil Bryant do’ I think they’re going to look at the third graders in the state and say 85-90 percent are reading on the third grade level and being promoted rightfully so to the fourth grade,” said Bryant.
Criminal Justice Reforms and Corrections
In just the last few weeks of his term, Bryant has faced major riots and issues in Department of Corrections facilities. He said moving forward he believes lawmakers are going to have to make a significant investment in the department to rectify operations and conditions within facilities.
In 2014 under Bryant, the First Step Act for criminal justice reform was passed, which has saved the state $33 million in the corrections budget. He said he had hoped to keep that money in order to put it back into the facilities at places like Parchman. He said if that were the case, they may not have had the problems currently being addressed.
“On the other side of this, these are gangs. I’ve been in law enforcement most of my life. These are the most violent offenders I have ever seen,” the Governor said. “Even the criminals today that are in jail are harder, more violent than 20 years ago.”
He said putting more funding into corrections is the most likely way for lawmakers to help combat the issue.
Historic Lows in Unemployment a Result of Focused Workforce Development
According to Bryant over the last eight years over $150 million has been saved by the state in unemployment payments. In 2011, he said they were paying $260 million, whereas this year the state only paid $56 million in unemployment. He said that is directly due to more people having opportunities to work. The state was at its lowest unemployment rate in its history in January at 4.7 percent. There are currently 49,000 jobs still unfilled.
“It’s the regulatory adjustment we’ve been able to do. Getting people out in the workforce easier without going through the burdens of professional organizations that weigh you down with so many regulations,” said Bryant.
He believes in order to keep these numbers low it all needs to fall under one state agency aimed directly at workforce development. He said he would house it under the Employment Security Commission and bring all of the local job developers, like SWIB and other agencies working on this goal, under one umbrella.
He said right now the workforce is good, but in order to get to the next level and the national average they will need to fill those jobs that are open.
State Lottery and Infrastructure
Legislators met for a Special Session in 2018 to pass a state lottery as part of the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act. The first $80 million in revenue is allocated to improve the states failing infrastructure. Bryant said moving forward he hopes that lawmakers will give the lottery a chance to do for roads and bridges what it was designed to do.
“The lottery is doing better than anyone ever imagined so I would say give it time to work and most of that is going to counties and cities where the real problems are at. The Capitol city has terrible infrastructure; it has been deteriorating over the last 100 years more than likely but the roads need repairing,” said Bryant.
He said State Auditor Shad White is currently doing a performance review of the Department of Transportation to verify whether or not the department is functioning at the best capacity possible, and whether or not there are ways to save money by combining engineering processes.
Passing of the Baton and Some Wisdom
In preparing to depart from his office in just a matter of days, Bryant shared some of the advice he gave to incoming Governor-Elect Tate Reeves.
“I related with him the same conversation I had with Haley Barbour. Haley said, ‘This is the most difficult job you will ever have,’ and he is absolutely right. You deal with multiple problems every day. Whether it is weather related, natural disasters, the prison system, whether you look at the economy and someone may be saying I may have to lay off some employees if we aren’t able to get this done. It is managing multiple problems on a huge scale. While at the same time pushing forward with your agenda. So my advice to him was, understand this is a difficult job, but you can do great things as being governor if you work hard enough at it. Stay the course as President Regan would like to say, ‘Identify what your priorities are and go do them.’”