BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – Governor Phil Bryant spoke to a joint meeting of the Lowndes County Republican Women and Rotary Club at Lion Hills Nov. 8. He talked about growth and change under the Republican administration, and briefly answered a few questions about refugees, illegal aliens and the Affordable Care Act.
Bryant has been governor since 2012, and was just re-elected to his second term. Prior to becoming governor, he served one term as lieutenant governor and 11 years as state auditor. He also was in the House of Representatives for five years.
[Mr. Bryant gave an overview of unemployment, economic development, education and other areas, but I suspect the things that most people will find interesting were said at the end, when he took a few questions from the audience. I’m going to start with that, and then get into his speech. – Ed.]
Bryant was asked about his stance on Syrian refugees not being welcomed to this area, and what kind of feedback he’s had since the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.
“It’s like anything,” Bryant said. “Most of the people who I believe are average Mississippians have come up to me and said ‘thank you’ and ‘stand strong.’ As you know, one of the terrorists who perpetrated the bombing attack in Paris was a Syrian refugee who had passed through Greece. They found his passport near his body. Eight Syrian refugees were found attempting to cross the border from Mexico. ICE stopped those, who we fully believe were going to perpetrate an attack similar to what you saw at San Bernardino.
“We’re all sympathetic Christian people, but why not create a safe zone in Syria to put these refugees in?” Bryant said. “Give them housing and food, let the United States military protect it and leave them at home?
“We had an intelligence meeting yesterday with federal and state authorities,” he said. “One of the things that I had not thought about is that most of these towns in Syria have been totally destroyed and most of the government buildings have been knocked down and burned. When you’re trying to do a background check on someone, it’s not like it is here where you can call the FBI and give a social security number and a date of birth. There are no systems left in Syria to do this background check. So 10,000 undocumented, unknown Syrians are going to brought into the United States and sent throughout this country. We won’t know who they are or what they’re doing. And we’re supposed to say that’s fine.
“The president in his speech the other night tried to divide everyone and say that you can’t go out and blame all Muslims for this,” Bryant said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s doing that. I don’t know anybody who says they’re all bad. We just don’t like the ones who try to kill us. I just don’t want my family or your family or your friends shot or blown up. (Obama) said that we’ve got to control assault weapons. He might not understand you can take a fully loaded 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot and probably could’ve killed more than than 14 people. So I guess that would be an assault rifle. I can’t put you at risk to be politically correct. The director of the FBI said that there are gaps in our background checks, and those gaps can kill somebody.”
Bryant was asked if the president could send refugees to Mississippi over his objections.
“He can,” Bryant said. “We reached out to our congressional delegation, and they’ve got a bill in the Senate now. Of course the president will probably veto it, but that’s how this republic works. It’s got to get across his desk. If refugees come to Mississippi and try to get a driver’s license, or try to seek DHS funding or enroll at a university, there are opportunities for us to identify people who are here on visas, like the young lady who was the wife who killed 14 people. If we’ve got someone who happens to show up and ask for benefits and they say they’re from Syria, I’d like to know that. I’d like to see if they’re qualified for any benefit, and they probably are not, and also to see if they have a passport and where they’re from. We’re going to do everything in our power to identify them. If they get their feelings hurt because we want to try to talk to them, they’ll just have to get their feelings hurt. We have a responsibility to know who they are and what they’re doing.”
Bryant was asked the amount of money that the state spends on benefits to illegal aliens.
“I did an audit when I was state auditor on those costs,” he said. “It was $25 million a year then for education, health care, public benefits. That was probably a decade ago, and I think that number has probably doubled since then. I’d guess that’s $40 to $50 million a year we spend on people who are here illegally. It’s very expensive to have that size population. We have a lot of people who are payed in cash, and they don’t pay taxes on it. If you look at what the president did last summer, he basically opened the border and said everyone come in as quick as you can. There was a rush of people coming across the border, and we don’t know where they’re at now. We have a system where we have refugees that come into the state who are religious or political refugees. We’ve had that for about 20 years now. I just looked at the list yesterday and two who came in about six months ago are from Afghanistan. I hope they’re good Christian people, but we’re already bringing in these refugees.”
Bryant was asked about the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the state.
“We have a $90 million deficit now in Medicaid,” Bryant said. “Medicaid for the first time exceeded $1 billion state cost. We pay 25 percent, the federal government pays 75 percent. But our share exceeded $1 billion. When Obamacare started, everybody thought they had free Medicaid and they rushed out and signed up. The federal government won’t allow us to do a face-to-face anymore, we have to do it online or on the telephone. If somebody can just get online and sign up for Medicaid, the federal government won’t allow us to go out there and determine whether or not they’re telling the truth.”
70,000 people have enrolled in Medicaid over the past three years, he said.
For the rest of his speech, Bryant focused on positive changes in the state.
“As Republicans, we have different ideas than our friends in the opposing party,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to be partisan today, but it’s the Republican Women. We have different ideas. One, we think it’s good to be successful on your own. We think American was built from the entrepreneurial spirit we see in many Mississippians, both men and women. In fact, Mississippi is number five in the nation in the growth of women-owned businesses. That’s not the national narrative that you hear. That’s an American Express study. I’m sure MSNBC thinks we keep y’all chained to wood-burning stoves down here. I travel the nation and tell them we’re better than 45 other states.
“We had a 9.5 percent unemployment rate when I came into office in 2011,” Bryant said. “(Rep. Jeff Smith, who was in the audience) remembers those days because he’s helped us cut taxes 49 times. When I go back in January, we’re going to make that an even 50. We brought in more tax revenue last year than at any time in Mississippi’s history. More money will come in next year than any time in our history. You’ll read editorials about how awful it is that we want to cut your taxes. They say we’re cutting taxes on companies and corporations. It’s because we brought in more money than at any time in Mississippi’s history. We added 40,000 jobs. Our unemployment rate today is 5.9 percent. [Which is still the ninth highest in the country. – Ed.] Below 6 percent unemployment in Mississippi is remarkable, because we’ve got a lot of people who were never trained to work. I said in my state of the state address that I wanted to find a job for every Mississippian who wants one. I have amended that. I want to find them a job even if they don’t want one.
“We got an award from a group – it’s a conservative group, a non-profit – that said that we do a great job taking people off of welfare, off of food stamps, and putting them to work,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. I started reading the Bible again from the beginning, and I read about Adam and Eve, and I never realized this but God gave Adam a job before he gave him a wife. He said go tend that garden. Then he gave him a wife. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. We’re helping 3,400 Mississippians who will come off of the food stamp program and go into a workforce training program. This is a federal grant from a bill signed by President Obama. That’s one thing he did right. Remember the workfare bill that President Clinton signed in 1992? We trained people to work instead of just giving them something. We federally funded daycare centers so if you’re a single mom you could put your child in a daycare center. We even paid for transportation. We’re going back to those days. We are one of only 20 states who received that money to do this.”
Bryant touted his educational agenda, including the third-grade reading gate.
“We said that we shouldn’t promote a child out of the third grade unless he can read on a third-grade level,” he said. “They said, ‘oh, he hates children.’ I’m a dyslexic child who repeated the third grade, and I’ve had some moderate success in life. They’ll be okay. They’re going to be taught to read. They’re not going to have the false impression that they’re going to succeed by being passed when they’re not prepared to do so.
“Three years ago we stopped the conveyer belt that all these children were on and we said we’re going to teach them to read,” he said. “At that time only 54 percent of the children in third grade were reading on a third-grade level. Last August, 92 percent passed. All of the superintendents and all of the principals got together and we spent $40 million in three years on reading coaches. We sent coaches into the schools to teach the teachers how to teach third graders how to read.
“We fought for years to have charter schools,” he said. “The educational establishment said we couldn’t have them, that we’re privatizing public schools. But they’re not private schools, they’re public schools. We’ve got two in Jackson now. I think we’ll have more in the future. I was at the grand opening of one in Jackson, and the population was 99 percent African American and they were excited. They were applauding their teacher. They have posters on the walls of what university or community college they want to attend. These were inner city Jackson children who had no hope. They were condemned to stay in that failing school and couldn’t get out. Those children deserved better than that, and we put them into great schools.
“We’re going to have school choice,” he said. “I just think you ought to be able to take your money and be able to send your child to whatever school you want them to attend. Jeb Bush was in Jackson yesterday, and he said it was one of the hardest fights he had every been through. Why can’t we do that? It’s your money, your child. You’ve got to get them there, and I’m sure we’ll have to have a limit. They had a lottery in Florida. There are so few things that in America we tell you you can’t choose. If you’ve got enough money, you can choose where your child goes to school. You can send your child to private school, you can move so your child can go to a good school district. But if you’re a single mom with several kids working two jobs, you can’t move. You’re there in a failing school district, and we’re going to do everything we can not to let you out. That shouldn’t be happening. They deserve an opportunity.”
Bryant talked about the changes to redistricting.
“That was one of the toughest battles I ever fought,” he said. “The way it was happening forever was that you got to draw your own district lines. That’s a pretty good job if you can get it. We said we want a fair redistricting plan. I fought it to a bloody nub, and I then I did something unusual: I read the constitution. It said redistricting was to happen in the year after the election. Then the guys came in and we were able to put in a fair plan. Because of that for the first time since Reconstruction we were able to put a good guy in the speaker’s position.
“Then we said let’s pass Voter ID so you actually have to show photo ID to vote,” he said. “There was screaming, gnashing of teeth. They said we’re going to scare everybody out. They said particularly older people will be afraid to show their drivers license. Now the only population that can’t vote is the recently deceased. We did take that right away from the dearly departed.”
Bryant closed with the budget, and possible future rounds of BRAC.
“We’ve stopped spending one-time money on reoccurring expenses,” Bryant said. “We’ve filled the rainy day fund. Louisiana and Alabama have large deficits. Huge deficits. You’ve got $410 million in your savings account. The rainy day fund is statutorily full.
“Your air force base in Columbus is just remarkable,” he said. “We’re going to fight every day to make sure that it’s not only stronger, but might be able to even take on more missions and more training. People say we’re going to lose some of our military bases. I hope others places lose theirs and we get it. I don’t want anybody to lose a base, but close some of those overseas and bring them back over here.”0