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Trouble in Mississippi

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Joe Atkins

OXFORD—Three-time Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, a betting man who loved the horses, knew his maneuverings to get a fourth term in 1960 were a long shot. He also knew he was the last hope for the poor white and poor black in a state where the right-wingers ached for power. A.J. Liebling, a newsprint poet who also loved the racetrack, records in his classic "The Earl of Louisiana" what happened when Uncle Earl's bet came up short: "The grass-eaters and the nuts have taken over the streets of New Orleans." Sure enough, newly elected Gov. Jimmie Davis quickly moved to cut $7.6 million in welfare funding and put 22,650 children on a path to starvation. Uncle Earl's enemies called him crazy—and maybe he was a little—but he was a true-blue populist who stood up for regular folks.

Such politicians are hard to find these days.

Look at Mississippi under Republican grass-eater rule in both the governor's mansion and state Legislature. A lopsided tax system that favors corporations and the rich has contributed to one of the biggest income gaps between the rich and poor of any state in the country. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn's solution? Phase out the state income tax and the $1.7 billion in state revenue it provides.

Thank goodness House Democrats killed Gunn's plan and prevented Mississippi from becoming another Kansas, where Republicans succeeded and nearly wrecked the state's budget while flat-lining its economy.

I'm one of the few journalists in this state who has decried the miserable protections workers have here due to a Republican-spawned gutting of workers' compensation rules. That's why I get calls from desperate workers injured on the job with little or no means of getting just treatment from their employers.

Another nearly wrecked institution is the state's prison system. Corruption at the highest levels and medieval conditions within its private prisons have the system's reputation in shambles. Experts acknowledged during a recent Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics panel discussion at Ole Miss that past politics and a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude set the stage. My view? The core corruption in the state's prison system is its willingness to hand over what is a state responsibility to profit-seeking private corporations.

Finally, let's look at education in a state with a history of politically sanctioned disdain for public education. Once again, the state Legislature ended its most recent session underfunding public schools, this time by $211 million under rules it set for itself in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Initiative 42 is an effort to fix this.

Quite clearly, a grass-eating core within the Republican Party wants to privatize public education. Charter schools and vouchers are merely Trojan horses in that cause. According to a study recently published in New Labor Forum, charter schools across the country have doubled since 2008, while some 4,000 district schools have shut down. Charter-school CEOs earn as much as three times what school principals earn. Yet, charter school advocates are the first to condemn teacher unions that want fair wages and benefits for teachers. Higher education is in a nationwide crisis. The cost of one college year increased 1,200 percent over the past 30 years, the New Labor Forum reports. Student-loan debt jumped 400 percent from 2003 and 2013.

Mississippi's Institutions of Higher Learning, called the College Board, came under fire for failing to renew the contract of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones. The decision, reached in secret, led to widespread speculation about a right-wing takeover of higher education in Mississippi.

Such speculation is warranted given what has happened in North Carolina and Wisconsin. Tea Partiers, corporate wheeler-dealer Art Pope and the University of North Carolina's Board of Governors managed to get rid of progressive UNC President Tom Ross earlier this year, as well as university centers devoted to the environment, voter engagement and ending poverty. Pope's dream is to get writer Ayn Rand, right-wing goddess of unhinged capitalism, accepted into the canon of required studies at UNC.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor and possible presidential hopeful Scott Walker tried to get the wording of the University of Wisconsin's mission statement changed from "searching for truth" to "meeting the state's work-force needs." He failed, but he did succeed in cutting university funding.

Mississippi voters have a chance to change things next election. Will they vote for Initiative 42 and for politicians who serve rather than oppose their interests? I'm hoping, but I'm not placing any bets.

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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