Rep. Robert Johnson

The Mississippi Legislative Democratic Caucus Leader Rep. Robert Johnson released a response to Governor Tate Reeves’ State of the State address.

You can watch Johnson’s response below beginning at the 40:00 minute mark: 

You can read the full letter below: 

Good Evening, I’m Representative Robert Johnson, Democratic Leader in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

I would first like to offer my sincere prayers and condolences to the families who have lost loved ones to the violence and brutal conditions in our Mississippi Prisons. While we understand that people who commit crimes are subject to punishment, the State has a responsibility to maintain requisite levels of safety and humane conditions for the people incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, and we have not done that, and we must do a better job. The Governor has taken the time to survey the conditions at Parchman and says that he is committed to improving the conditions at Parchman and throughout MDOC, and we are ready to work with him.

The Governor stated that his will be an administration for “ALL MISSISSIPPI.” Governor Reeves goes on to say that his two priorities will be “defending the loving culture that underpins our quality of life and growing the economy that lifts all of our families.”

We agree that his administration should be for all of Mississippi. All of Mississippi should not just mean Madison, Rankin, and DeSoto Counties. All of Mississippi should not just mean people of one race, one faith, one gender, one sexual orientation, or one political party. One Mississippi should truly mean all of Mississippi. And, when we talk about the loving culture that underpins our quality of life, let’s not forget that this loving culture has to be one of inclusion, progress, and change.

The culture that has made Mississippi great has been rooted in the sacrifice and leadership of people like Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer and political leaders like William Winter and Robert Clark, to name a few. These leaders brought people together, fought for the underserved, and encouraged progressive thinking that led to positive change in our great state — change that brought improvements in human relationships, healthcare, public education, infrastructure, and our overall quality of life. However, we have fallen behind again in our human relationships, healthcare, public education, infrastructure, and our overall quality of life. We believe it is time for us to embrace that culture of courage, selflessness, and progressive thinking that brought about transcendent change 50 years ago.  

The time for us to act is urgent; we are losing our future. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Mississippi’s millennial population dropped by 35,013 people from 2010-2016.  Mississippi is the only state in the nation losing millennials this quickly. The reason why is clear — we are not creating opportunities for young professionals, college graduates, or our well-trained skilled workers. In 2019 Mississippi had the next-to-the-highest unemployment rate in the country. We have one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country and the highest rate of poverty. Both of these numbers are doubled or disproportionately worse in the Mississippi Delta and Southwest Mississippi. It’s time for progressive and innovative thinking and planning, and it will take a team effort.

Public education is a good place to start. We should be committed to increasing teacher salaries much more than the small pay raise we just gave. Let’s commit to getting them that $4,000 a year increase so that we keep the best teachers — let alone attract the best. We must stop bragging on how much money we have in our rainy-day fund when there are public school buildings falling apart. We should be committed to improving the infrastructure of our schools. All of our schools should be adequately heated and cooled, and there should be a computer on every desk. Instead of bragging on the tax breaks that we have given to large out-of-state corporation at a cost of over $500 million dollars, let’s start investing in Mississippi businesses, small and large. Businesses that have been right here in Mississippi for three and four generations. Businesses that will continue to invest and build in their cities and counties and not take that investment out of state. Clearly what we have been doing has not been working. Our economic growth is one of the lowest in the country.  According to the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Mississippi was next-to-last in our region and 42nd in the country. Our GDP percentage growth was only 1.0 percent while Alabama was twice ours at 2.0 %, and Tennessee was three times higher at 3.0 %. We have to do better, and we can.

We must be committed to a serious road and bridge program. Mississippi has over 700 bridges that are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and over 8,000 highway lane miles classified as unsafe because they are poor or very poor. If the Governor is serious about growing our economy, then we have to be committed to investing in infrastructure. We have to adopt a serious funding mechanism that will address our road and bridge issues. We have a $400 million a year infrastructure maintenance need in a system where we have not increased our funding formula in 25 years.

We must address our health care crisis. More than two-thirds of the state’s citizens live in rural areas. That should not mean they won’t have access to quality health care.  We have had five rural hospitals close in the last five years, and five more are threatening to close soon. We must commit to healthcare expansion. No person should fear that a loved one is in danger simply because there is no hospital and no emergency room within 40 miles of where they live. Healthcare expansion would help solve that problem. Expansion would provide health coverage for over 200,000 working Mississippians. An expansion would pour over $8 Billion dollars into our state’s economy, creating over 8,000 more well-paying healthcare jobs, and would help keep more of our hospitals open. Having a better-than-adequate public education program, improved and safe roads and bridges, and a modern state-of-the-art healthcare system are necessary components that must be in place to grow our economy and improve the quality of life for all Mississippi.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t address the crisis facing the Mississippi Department of Corrections. There are over 19,000 people incarcerated in Mississippi Prisons. Of that number, 6,000 of those people are eligible for parole, are non-violent offenders serving less than 5 years or are juveniles charged as adults. We suggest that our corrections system is overstressed, underfunded, and understaffed. We should reduce that stress by finding safe and viable ways to de-carcerate. We should work for the early release of those 2,400 people who are serving time for simple drug possession or are nonviolent offenders within 2-3 years of release. The legislature could pass a statute requiring the Parole Board to undertake an immediate assessment of a particular group of inmates and make recommendations to the Governor, and the Governor can commute sentences based on those recommendations. These actions could reduce the prison population by close to 5,000 people, thereby giving our underfunded Department of Corrections a more manageable population and saving the state over $200 million by the year 2025. We can then begin to work together on long-range solutions, like paying better wages to correction officers, putting them back under the personnel board, financing the building and rehabilitation of more modern facilities and refining our sentencing laws, parole and probation laws and providing vocational, educational, and transitional training so that the incarcerated will be able to work and be productive citizens when they are released.

Democrats are thinking and working. We are ready to shed our labels and reach across the aisle and work with Governor Reeves. Mississippians are in a fight for the survival of our State. We must win that fight, and we will if we work together.