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Three New Year’s resolutions for Mississippi

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Each new year brings the opportunity for reflection and resolve. Several days ago, I looked back on 2013 with five numbers that I felt summed up the year that was. Now I’ve turned my attention to the year to come. Here are my three resolutions for Mississippi in 2014 (which hopefully last longer than that gym membership…):

1) Create universal, high-quality pre-K

2014 should be the year that Mississippi finally takes responsibility for the conditions it has bequeathed to many of its youngest and most vulnerable. More than one out of three children in Mississippi grow up below the federal poverty line – the highest rate in the developed world. Without high-quality early education integrated with health and social services, childhood poverty will likely become a lifelong affliction.

Every 4-year-old in Mississippi deserves access to state-funded quality pre-kindergarten. Last year’s authorization of $3 million for a high-quality collaborative pre-K system was a start, albeit in the same way that tuning a violin can be considered the start of Beethoven’s 5th. It is a prerequisite, but the most important part has yet to begin.

Georgia sets the national standard for universal pre-K. Their program launched in 1992 and was expanded through revenue from the state lottery. In 2013, Georgia budgeted $300 million to educate 84,000 4-year-olds.

The Mississippi Department of Education, on the other hand, will fund 11 sites serving approximately 1,200 kids this year. Plans to “scale up” the program are contingent upon a parsimonious Legislature, which last year appropriated less than half of the annual $8 million investment called for in the first phase of its pre-K legislation.

Luckily, some of the early childhood slack has been taken up by private groups and federal Head Start and Title I-funded programs. Last year the Legislature did also kick in $3 million to Mississippi Building Blocks, a private program that works within existing child care centers to improve school readiness, and authorized $8 million in tax credits for individual or corporate contributions to pre-K providers. But this patchwork system leaves out many children who could benefit the most. As a result, a staggering number of Mississippi’s children show up to kindergarten unprepared.

Last year, the state’s leaders took a preliminary step toward supporting universal, high-quality pre-K. In 2014, they should commit the resources to make it a reality.

2) Support Jackson’s growth

This is the year for Mississippi to finally understand that the state’s fortune depends on the fortune of its capital city. As the nation’s fourth most rural state, Mississippi should be very concerned about the national trend of rural outmigration. For the first time in American history, the country’s rural population has declined in absolute terms. Many of Mississippi’s rural counties have lost more than 10 percent of their population in the past decade.

Like their national counterparts, those migrants are moving to cities — just not in Mississippi. Mississippi is the only state in the South that suffers from a net outmigration rate. Young Mississippians can find professional and educational opportunities in Nashville, Atlanta, or Raleigh that their home state simply does not offer.

If Mississippi wants to be able to compete with the rest of the South — let alone the rest of the world — it must transform from a talent exporter to a talent importer. That requires a thriving, vibrant urban area to attract people who have the option to live elsewhere. As the state’s only city of any note, Jackson must become Mississippi’s magnet.

Jackson is moving in that direction. The capital is in the midst of a turnaround that has caught the eye of national outlets such as The Atlantic and The New York Times. The population of Jackson proper is growing for the first time in 40 years. The art and restaurant scenes are on the rise. Its healthcare sector continues to build. And the new mayor Chokwe Lumumba has turned the business community’s initial fears into tentative friendship.

All that is happening in spite of the state’s leadership. Jackson’s buckling infrastructure (a legacy of neglect and geological misfortune) must be upgraded for the city to handle new residents and businesses. That task is complicated, if not made impossible, when Jackson’s largest property owner — the state government — is a deadbeat.

State-owned buildings are exempt from ad valorem property taxes, meaning that the capitol, museums, governor’s mansion, and state office buildings do not contribute a dime to the city budget. Add in other tax-exempt entities (churches, universities, hospitals, and nonprofits) and 30 percent of Jackson’s property cannot be taxed. Every year, legislation is introduced to require the state to make a payment in lieu of taxes to Jackson, as roughly half of other states do to support their capitals’ roads and services. Every year, it dies a quick and silent death in the Legislature.

When state leaders aren’t ignoring Jackson’s interests, they’re actively working to undercut them. In 2012, the House quashed a deal that would have moved the Department of Revenue’s 500 employees to the vacant Landmark Building downtown. Not coincidentally, the jobs ended up in the district of House Speaker Phillip Gunn (R-Clinton). Until the University of Mississippi Medical Center recently purchased the Landmark, downtown Jackson faced a devastating office vacancy rate of 35 percent.

Surely no other state is as psychologically detached from its largest city as Mississippi is from Jackson. If Mississippi doesn’t realize in 2014 that Jackson’s interests are its own, we may squander our best chance to compete with the vibrant cities that are luring away Mississippi’s best and brightest.

3) Start rethinking Mississippi

As the old proverb goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” I would hesitate to use such a worn cliché if it had ever applied to Mississippi.

We enter 2014 in the same place that we entered 2013 and nearly every year before: last in education, last in health, last in income. That vicious combination leaves us with more problems than any other state but fewer resources to address them.

The scale and scope of our challenges demand that Mississippi be more innovative than our fellow states.  Yet we seem only comfortable with new ideas once 49 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam have gone before us. The aforementioned pre-K and urban policy — or lack thereof — are prime examples.  The necessity exists, so why hasn’t Mississippi invented more creative solutions?

We know it’s not for lack of ability. Mississippi produces among the most creative minds in the country. Look no further than our writers, which include a Nobelist, numerous Pulitzer winners, and the reigning U.S. Poet-Laureate. Same goes for our music, which gave the world the Fathers of the Blues and Country as well as the King of Rock n’ Roll. Two businesses with strong Mississippi ties, FedEx and Netscape, changed the way that goods and information travel the globe. And it was doctors in Mississippi who performed the world’s first heart and lung transplants, wrote the physiology textbook used by nearly every med student in the past half-century, and discovered the first effective cure for infant HIV.

It’s long overdue that we apply the same innovative spirit to our collective social and economic problems. “That’s how we’ve always done it” is not an acceptable answer as long as Mississippi ranks 50th in everything good and 1st in everything bad.

Surmounting greater challenges than other states means leveraging our resources more efficiently than they do. Mississippi should seek to integrate more rigorous, data-driven methods into the policymaking process. We need empirical evidence to figure out what is working, and we need the political will to change what isn’t.

That requires a new attitude of self-criticism — something we’ve rarely been comfortable with. However, until we are honest with ourselves about what the state is, we settle for far less than it could be. Those conversations cannot wait. 2014 must be the year we resolve to rethink Mississippi.

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