Mississippi Republicans face key issues in 2015 statewide elections


POWER OF THREE: The Mississippi Republican Party controls the Governor’s Mansion and both houses of the Legislature.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Since 2012, Mississippi Republicans have been in charge of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s seat.

With a big election in November 2015, Mississippi’s GOP trifecta faces two questions: Has it made good on its campaign promises, and will that be enough to hand the Republicans another four years?

A lot of political observers have to wonder about the state of the Mississippi Republican Party after a contentious U.S. Senate primary between incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel. After McDaniel’s fervent supporters paced him to a narrow win in the primary, Cochran took a narrow victory in a runoff with the help of Democrats and cruised to an easy victory in the general election.

The race showed a stark divide between the state’s GOP power base and the insurgent tea party.

Frank Corder, editor of the political blog Y’all Politics and a former Pascagoula city councilman, told Mississippi Watchdog via email he thinks this election cycle won’t be as rancorous. With the GOP holding a 31-20 advantage in the state Senate and a 65-57 majority in the state House, the potential to gain seats will be predicated on the party healing its wounds.

“The vitriol we saw this year isn’t likely to roll over into 2015 with the same fervor as was propagated in 2014 in large part because the out-of-state interests will not be as prevalent and the questionable antics from those in state have been largely discredited and disavowed,” Corder said. “Add in the positive, conservative record of Legislative Republicans and the ‘Cochran-ing’ (running to the right of an incumbent) of most just will not find any real traction.”

This year’s election is crucial. Voters will cast ballots for the entire Legislature, the governor and other crucial statewide offices. One ballot initiative — to fully fund the complex school funding equation known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program — is likely to be on the ballot and give state Democrats a ready-made issue. While the GOP has increased K-12 spending in the past three budget cycles and passed a teacher pay increase last year, the increase isn’t enough to quell the critics.

Corder has some ideas on where the GOP-led Legislature should get to work when the session starts in January that will provide a positive springboard to campaign season. One of the biggest is reforming the flawed MAEP formula, which was passed in 1997 and is also the subject of a lawsuit by school districts, led by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

“Addressing PERS (Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi) and giving taxpayers a break should be on the agenda,” Corder said. “School choice is another area where Republicans have excelled. Providing parents with educational options is worth commending. I do hope they go further and require all school boards to be elected and all superintendents to be appointed. I’m also of the opinion that the MAEP formula needs to be addressed.”

Another potential issue for the 2015 state elections is Medicaid expansion. Gov. Phil Bryant has stressed that he does not support Medicaid expansion because the threat of the U.S. Congress doing away with the Affordable Care Act or altering it could possibly leave the state with the bill for thousands of new patients on Medicaid.

Costs are already increasing for the state. Bryant asked for a 14.7 percent increase over last year’s allocation for Medicaid, the first time in the state’s history that particular budget outlay exceeded $1 billion.

Democrats have argued the governor is passing up free money from the federal government, which already provides more than 40 percent of the state’s budget. The issue might be one of the key battlegrounds on which control of the Legislature pivots.

“A great deal of time and effort has gone into fighting the expansion of a broken Medicaid system that will further reduce access to health care services, especially in rural areas of our state,” Keith Plunkett, a Republican political and policy consultant and a communication strategist in Mississippi, said in an email to Mississippi Watchdog. “That fight will continue again in 2015. But it’s one that we need to have.

“Health care in Mississippi is only as good as the ability of doctors to treat patients. I hope that officials in 2015 will begin talking about the root causes of that crisis instead of looking at it as purely a financial consideration for hospital administrations.”

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