Here and There

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A closer look at the man in the arena

*First appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I’ve always loved Theodore Roosevelt. He embodied my romantic notions about life: To fight valiantly, to hunt big game, to travel the world, to become a published author, to be a frontiersman, to be President of the United States, in a single lifetime.

As we gear up for another round of political goings-on (both the 2015 statewide elections and the more imminent legislative session), I remind you of Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech which he delivered in France more than a century ago. The discourse was designed to highlight the virtues necessary for a healthy republic.

Its most famous lines come about midway through the speech, in which Roosevelt extols the virtue of the man who acts:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is, to be sure, an important quote that deserves the repetitive uttering it enjoys; yet, this passage is far from Teddy’s only observation applicable to the current political discourse.

Roosevelt warns citizens against the false gods of oration, saying “it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

I particularly like the way he phrases these next observations, biting though they are: “The phrase-maker, the phrase-monger, the ready talker, however great his power, whose speech does not make for courage, sobriety, and right understanding, is simply a noxious element in the body politic, and it speaks ill for the public if he has influence over them. To admire the gift of oratory without regard to the moral quality behind the gift is to do wrong to the republic.”

The idea of purity in politics isn’t new (nor is anything under the sun), and Teddy takes this issue head on: “Perhaps the most important thing the ordinary citizen, and, above all, the leader of ordinary citizens, has to remember in political life is that he must not be a sheer doctrinaire. The closet philosopher, the refined and cultured individual who from his library tells how men ought to be governed under ideal conditions, is of no use in actual governmental work; and the one-sided fanatic, and still more the mob-leader, and the insincere man who to achieve power promises what by no possibility can be performed, are not merely useless but noxious.”

Yet don’t mistake this for weakness, for Roosevelt believes the citizen must have high ideals, but “must be able to achieve them in practical fashion…The impracticable visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcomings, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things.”

In Roosevelt’s republic, “to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

I’m hopeful we will remember these words in the coming months when passions run high, as they so often do in the body politic. As Roosevelt said, there is little place in active life for the timid good man. Let us not be timid good men in 2015.

If the Christ child were born in 2014

*First appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Would the story of the birth of Jesus be different if it happened today?

Young Mary is to marry the carpenter Joseph, but their engagement is not without its share of drama. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary, and she becomes pregnant with the Christ child.

Whispers of Mary’s presumed indiscretions fill the streets. Her friends join in the chorus of disbelievers, explaining that even reality television stars come up with more plausible excuses for unintended pregnancies. Statisticians shrug this out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a growing trend among the poor. Women’s rights activists stage a rally to celebrate Mary’s bold choice to get pregnant outside of marriage and to remind Nazarenes that it’s her body, her choice. Mental health advocates point to Mary as a product of a failed system that overlooks a woman who has spiritual delusions. Psychologists say Mary’s denial of sexual relations is an indication of some deeper longing that began in her childhood.

Joseph is reeling. Every fiber of his being wants to leave this no-good, two-timing woman. His friends say he’s not a real man if he lets her off the hook. Joseph wants to retain his manhood, but there’s one problem: He, too, has been visited by an Angel of God to confirm Mary’s story. Joseph won’t leave Mary, he tells friends. They’re in shock and take to posting on Facebook: “Clearly Mary is guilt-tripping Joseph. What do they think this is, Knocked Up? #NotAMovie #ThisIsRealLife #ManUpJoJo.”

Enter the government. A census must be taken! We must know the couple’s age, gender, income, sexual orientation, race, marital history, place of birth, disability status, educational attainment, veteran service, value of property owned, acreage of owned land, rooms in residential home, year structure built, vehicles at primary residence, class of worker, health insurance costs, work status last year, journey to work, occupation type, and place of work. This data will enable demographic trends to be observed but, more importantly, will ensure residents are paying taxes properly – giving credence to the timeless adage, “nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

The government’s decree means lots of folks are traveling to Bethlehem. Traffic on the highway is back-to-back. The common refrain on Twitter is that the dense traffic is “worse than football season.” Mary checks her Holiday Inn app. No vacancy. Joseph tries to check in online at the Motel 8, but it’s full. As a last ditch effort, they try the Bethlehem Hilton but get laughed out the door. “There’s no room here, pal,” the doorman taunts as he eyes a very-pregnant Mary.

Mary’s water breaks. She and Joseph have little time to find shelter. They pull over at an abandoned Sonic whose only residents seem to be stray cats and a three-legged dog. The animals gather round as Mary gives birth to Baby Jesus.

Angels appear to workers gathering runaway buggies at a nearby Kroger. “Fear not,” the angels tell the terrified teenagers, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Clad in blue collared shirts and khakis, the Kroger employees make their way to the Sonic to gaze upon the newborn savior of the world. When they arrive, they are convinced this child is the Messiah. Immediately they begin blogging, tweeting, and posting photos on Instagram to share the good news.

An employee of the Department of Human Services observes the conditions in which the child is born and takes immediate action to remove the child from a dangerous environment. This government intrusion is rendered moot after a trust fund is set up for Baby Jesus by three anonymous benefactors. Even so, the government promises to keep an eye on this baby boy who looks as if he may pose a threat to the status quo in the future.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mississippi’s fiscal prudency brought to you by the voters of 2011

*First appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Last week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) adopted a budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2015. The legislative budget recommendation (LBR) provides a starting point for lawmakers to use when contemplating budget priorities in the 2015 regular session.

As is typical this time of year, I’ve seen some left-leaning types complain about the recommendation. It shortchanges (fill in the blank with your favorite state agency); it saves too much money; it doesn’t spend enough money; etc.

If you look closely, those are the same dangerous arguments which voters handily repudiated in 2011.

Prior to the last statewide election cycle in which Republicans won majorities in the House of Representatives, Senate, and Governor’s Office, the budget writing committee included mostly Democrats. As a result, the budget recommendation reflected irresponsible fiscal practices, such as including one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

The problem (well, one of…) with this approach is that it automatically creates a funding shortfall the next year, which in turn creates one the next year, and so on. Imagine a cascading funding gap. That’s not a phrase associated with sound budgeting principles.

With Republicans in charge, that’s no longer the case. The JLBC, led by Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves along with appropriations chairmen Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. Herb Frierson, has put a stop to spending non-recurring revenue on recurring expenses. To you, the taxpayer, this sounds very logical, even common sensical. But it took years of Republicans fighting the status quo to achieve fiscal prudency – and it was ultimately only made possible by the majority of Mississippians who voted for financial conservatism in 2011.

Today, the state’s rainy day fund is filled to its statutory amount, which means Mississippi is on solid footing should we be forced to endure another economic downturn. Saving for the future is important because it lessens the risk that budgets – including education – will be cut during periods of revenue shortfall.

The legislative budget recommendation maintains a full rainy day fund, yet Democrats have cried foul. They claim the LBR stashes away some $622 million in this reserve fund, but that’s just plain wrong. The rainy day fund balance is approximately $393 million, and the remaining unallocated funds will be utilized during the 2015 session for capital projects, education, and other needs.

As we approach 2015, it’s not surprising to see some Democrats attack Republican successes. They’re mad as heck Republicans delivered on their promises to get the state’s fiscal house in order without jeopardizing state priorities.

Consider the following: The Republicans quit spending one-time money. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans filled the state’s rainy day fund in order to be able to weather unexpected downturns in the economy. Promise made; promise kept. The Republicans even – gasp – increased funding for education! Promise made; promise kept.

Let’s talk about education. For years, Democrats and other like-minded organizations have tried their hardest to make this a wedge issue with voters by making outrageous claims: Republicans hate children. Republicans hate teachers. Republicans hate math and science and rulers and calculators.

Bah-humbug.

Republicans championed and passed a meaningful charter school law to ensure the state’s children have every opportunity to get a quality education. There is only one reason to pass a charter law in any state: To provide more opportunity for children.

Republicans championed and passed a teacher pay raise. By the start of the next fiscal year, every single teacher in Mississippi will be making $3,500 more. As Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves likes to say, Mississippi is “now a leader and not a laggard in teacher pay.”

The Republican-majority budget committee recommended a $32.1 million increase to the Miss. Adequate Education Program, but that’s not all. Legislative leaders have indicated a willingness to increase education spending above this amount when final revenue numbers are determined in the spring.

Over the past three years, the Republican-majority Legislature has increased education spending by a quarter of a billion dollars, or roughly $245 million. These increases have come at a time when many agencies of government haven’t yet seen their budgets rebound from the Great Recession.

That being said, it’s not enough to simply spend more money on education. We must demand results. Too often, the litmus test for support of education is how much money policymakers are willing to spend – with little to no regard of educational outcomes. This is both intellectually dishonest and harmful to those who are working to improve educational quality in a fiscally responsible manner.

In short, Republicans have delivered on their budgetary promises, leading to greater financial stability for the state of Mississippi. As they say, elections have consequences, and voters showed their wisdom by electing budget-minded leaders to office in 2011.

Friday, December 12, 2014

State’s long-term growth stems from STEM

*First appeared in Dec. 11 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

For years, I’ve heard anecdotes about Mississippi having too many elementary education teacher graduates. Yeah, yeah. Too many college-age students want to teach kindergarten or first grade as a profession. So what?

Recent data from the Institutions of Higher Learning puts the issue into perspective.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 1,091 students graduated in a teacher education program within our public university system. Nearly two-thirds of all teacher education graduates earned a degree in elementary education. These statistics reflect similar outcomes from the previous school year (2012-2013) in which a little more than sixty percent of all teacher education graduates majored in elementary education.

Considered as a stand-alone data point, this may not raise your eyebrows. But it should, and here’s why.

In the 2013-2014 school year:

Alcorn State University had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. ASU had one mathematics education graduate.

Delta State University had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and mathematics education. DSU had one biology education graduate.

Jackson State University had one graduate in mathematics education.

Mississippi State University had zero graduates in the field of chemistry education. MSU had five biology education graduates; 14 mathematics education graduates; and one physics education graduate.

Mississippi Valley State University had zero mathematics education graduates and one biology education graduate.

Mississippi University for Women had zero graduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, and physics education. MUW had one physics education graduate.

The University of Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. UM had two biology education graduates and 12 mathematics education graduates.

The University of Southern Mississippi had zero graduates in the fields of chemistry and physics education. USM had seven biology education graduates and seven mathematics education graduates.

See a trend? A very small portion of Mississippi’s future teaching crop is choosing STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) subject areas. This is particularly troubling, given that STEM-related fields are among the fastest growing and highest paying sectors in the current and future labor market.

If our children are going to be successful, we’ve got to make sure they have access to quality teachers who can prepare them for the workforce or college. Whichever path they choose, STEM skills will be a vital component to success.

But with graduation numbers like these, is access to STEM education a reality? I’m not sure.

One avenue that might help alleviate these numbers is encouraging more women to pursue teaching careers in STEM areas. According to the OECD, “gender differences are…apparent in young people’s choice of field of study. Engineering, manufacturing and construction are by far the most popular fields of study for boys.” Inversely, the OECD has found that girls are more dispersed among social sciences, business and law, health and welfare, and other services.

According to National Education Association data, Mississippi’s teacher population is overwhelmingly female, with men making up just 17.9 percent of those in the profession.

In fact, the low percentage of male faculty may partially explain why our public universities are graduating so few teachers in STEM areas, given gender biases for specific fields.

The state has an interest in shifting teacher graduates to high-growth fields. It’s a positive move to secure our state’s future growth prospects, since STEM careers don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But it also helps balance the job search process: Too many elementary education teachers may over-saturate the market, resulting in unemployment for even qualified teachers. On the other hand, I’ve never met an unemployed chemistry education graduate.

To bring this full circle: Teaching is a noble profession, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with elementary education. Except that there are too many college students who pursue teaching careers in that field.

The state’s future is better served by a concentrated push to increase quality teachers in the STEM fields.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why

*First appeared in the Dec. 4, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

‘Tis the season once again for the legislative session. Next month, the 2015 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature will convene. The specific date and time is noon on January 6. That’s precisely 36 days from the time I am writing this column – but who’s counting?

Last year in this space, I gave you a preview of the people, places, politics, and policies of the Capitol. This year I’ll attempt to provide you with more context as we approach the session, a.k.a. the “sesh” to some very cool Capitol workers.

Since I haven’t seen much writing out there about committees, I’ll do my best to introduce you to legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why.

First, a short primer on how committees operate: The head of each chamber (that’s the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker in the House of Representatives) must assign every single bill to a committee. After the bill has been “referred” (as it is called) to a committee, then that bill becomes property of the committee. The committee, controlled by the chairman, must decide what to do with the bill: Bring it up for a vote? Assign it to a subcommittee? Or do nothing and let it die?

After a bill is passed out of committee, it then goes to the full chamber for a vote. Usually, the committee chairman will handle the bill on the floor, explaining what it does and urging the members to vote for it.

As you can see, committee chairmen have a lot of power in the Mississippi Legislature – so if your business takes you before the Legislature, you’d be wise to study up on your chairmen and your committees.

Committees are like mobile apps. If you’ve got an idea for government, or a specific complaint, or want some taxpayer funding, well, there’s a committee for that. You want to change our turkey season? Think: Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee. Want to promote downtown development through a state-funded grant? Think: Appropriations Committee. You want Jones County to become its own state? Think again.

The House of Representatives and the State Senate each have their own committees. Some have the same names (both houses have Education Committees, for example), but others have different names. The House manages its finance-related issues through the Ways and Means Committee – which is also known as the “ways to be mean” committee. On the other hand, the Senate handles its finance issues through the aptly named Finance Committee.

I’ll highlight several of the larger committees for your reading pleasure.

Some of my favorite committees are the money committees. Those include: House Appropriations, Senate Appropriations, House Ways and Means, and Senate Finance.

All taxpayer funds appropriated for a specific purpose – such as funding for a state agency – are handled through appropriations committees in each house. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Herb Frierson, a Republican from Poplarville. The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman is Sen. Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale. (By the way, Chairman Clarke is sometimes referred to as the “Gentleman Farmer” because of his Delta lineage. It’s one of my favorite nicknames at the Capitol.)

On the House side, this committee meets in Room 201-A; on the Senate side, appropriations meets in Room 216, which is also the old Supreme Court room.

The other big money committees are those that handle finance issues. Whereas appropriations committees handle spending of funds, these committees handle incoming revenues.

The House Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus; this group meets in Room 201-B. The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, and it also meets in Room 216. (You’ll notice that South Mississippi fares pretty well in terms of money committee chairmenships.)

The newest committees to be formed are those that look at government reform issues. Both chambers have similar committees called “Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency” which oversee a litany of issues: technology initiatives, good government ideas, pay raises, and many others. These committees serve as a sort of catch-all during the session. I have had the opportunity to work closely with Sen. Nancy Collins, a Republican from Tupelo who chairs the Senate’s AET committee. She’s one of the most reform-minded senators in the Mississippi Legislature – and that’s good news for John Q. Taxpayer.

Energy is a big item for families and, as it turns out, for state government. Both legislative bodies have an energy committee, which oversees issues related to oil and gas and Public Service Commission regulations, among others. My uncle and Jones County native Rep. Gary Staples serves as vice chairman of the House Energy Committee. This is particularly helpful for the Free State, since oil and gas is a big economic driver in the Pine Belt area.

Other committees important to the Pine Belt include those dealing with agriculture, community and junior colleges, education, and county affairs. In fact, Jones County Rep. Bobby Shows serves as Chairman of the House County Affairs committee, which handles local issues dealing with supervisors, county purchases, land transfers, and other issues.

Want a full listing of the various legislative committees? Check out www.legislature.ms.gov.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An attitude of gratitude can boost personal latitudes

*First appeared in Nov. 26, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

When you read this column, you’ll likely be prepping for your annual Thanksgiving tradition, whether that means driving to your parent’s house for home-style cooking (like me) or cooking for your family (not like me) or something else unique to your situation.

Whatever your annual Turkey Day habits, the shared focus of this holiday is a reminder to be grateful for our many blessings.

Being thankful, it turns out, doesn’t just benefit others; it boosts your own personal health, too.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard reviewed the mental health benefits of gratitude and offered some advice on how to cultivate a thankful state of mind.

For starters, they examined the root of gratitude, which has its origins in Latin. The Latin word “gratia” means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, depending on the context, and in some ways, “gratitude encompasses all of these meanings.”

Researchers conclude that “with gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves…[helping] people connect to something larger.”

Harvard’s examination of gratefulness included a reference to several psychological studies. One study required one set of subjects to write about things they were grateful had happened, and another set of subjects to write about things that displeased and/or irritated them. The result? Those who wrote about their gratitude were, on average, more optimistic than their testing counterparts. The happy group also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor.

(To be fair to the unhappy group, I too would be grumpy if someone made me spend my days writing about things that irritate me.)

Other studies have been conducted on couples in relationships, finding that couples that display gratitude between partners are generally happier and have more honest, open communication.

Yet another study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that employees felt motivated to work harder after feeling appreciated – that is, after a manager showed gratitude for their efforts.

Studies like these cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, but they do typically support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

So how do we become more thankful? The Harvard folks advise the following:

Write thank you notes.

Thank someone mentally.

Keep a gratitude journal.

Count your blessings.

Pray.

That seems fairly simple, doesn’t it?

More important than the researchers at Harvard, though, is a divine directive to be thankful. Consider the numerous times when the Bible tells us to have a spirit of gratitude:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name; make known His doings among the peoples! (1 Chronicles 16:8)

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 107:1)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

This Thanksgiving, we can all be thankful there’s no disagreement on what makes us cheerful. Gratitude is, in large part, key to a happy, healthy state of mind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Someone finally tells the truth about Obamacare, but it’s not pretty

*First appeared in the Nov. 19, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Wonder if Jonathan Gruber regrets adhering to that old adage, “honesty is the best policy?”

You know Gruber. He’s the M.I.T. economist who told the truth about Obamacare, possibly the first supporter of the law to do so.

Here are a few nuggets from his public comments: First, the bill was written in a “tortured way to make sure CBO didn’t score the mandate as taxes,” because if the Congressional Budget Office had done that, the bill would have died. Second, “if you made a law that said healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it wouldn’t have passed, just like lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing passed.”

So why do we care what Jonathan Gruber says about Obamacare? The Washington Post said he played a “central role designing [Obamacare] and shepherding it through Congress” and also convinced the President that “a viable health care reform plan would have to include an individual mandate to buy insurance.” The New York Times has referred to him as “Mr. Mandate.” The Wall Street Journal calls him “an architect of the Affordable Care Act.”

In other words: We can take him at his word when he says the very foundation of the healthcare plan was misleading at best, an outright lie at worst.

In fact, that’s exactly what Ron Fournier (who “openly rooted for Obamacare’s successes”) called this debacle in the National Journal: “I have to admit, as a supporter, that Obamacare was built and sold on a foundation of lies. No way around it.”

Fournier’s not the only detractor – not by a long shot. Tevi Troy writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The all-too-candid MIT economist is not likely to have a hard time paying for his own health care—Mr. Gruber reportedly received $400,000 for advising the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act. But he is having a hard time explaining his unguarded comments about the law. His views may be obnoxious, but Mr. Gruber has performed a public service by finally telling the truth about ObamaCare.”

March Thiessen writes in the Washington Post that the “reason Democrats are running from Gruber is the same reason conservatives should be thanking him: Gruber has exposed what liberals really think of the American people.”

Not so fast, says President Obama. The President explained that Gruber “never worked on our staff.” (Don’t worry about the fact Gruber was paid nearly $400,000 by the Obama administration as noted above, nor the fact that he is the “intellectual author of the individual mandate,” nor the fact that he personally met in the Oval Office with President Obama and head of the Congressional Budget Office to discuss the healthcare legislation.) Even Nancy Pelosi attempted to distance herself, saying she doesn’t know who Gruber is. This seems odd, given that she referenced him personally during her comments in the Obamacare debate.

Top Democrats seem to think rational Americans like you and me will buy their flimsy excuses, will overlook their previous dealings with Gruber, and will rock on like nothing’s happened.

But what do they think we are – stupid?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Aspirational philosophy takes back seat to immediate gratification

*First appeared in the Nov. 12 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I’ve been thinking a lot about space travel.

It started a few weeks ago with the tragedy of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashing in the Mohave Desert, killing a test pilot and injuring the other. If you’re not familiar with the company, here’s a primer. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline – or it intends to be, if commercial space travel becomes a successful venture. The company’s website says it aims to “transform access to outer space.”

I had two competing thoughts upon hearing about the tragedy: The first one, of course, was “what an awful tragedy.” The second, of course, was “man, it would be cool to go to space. I hope they succeed, eventually.”

Fast-forward to last week when I saw the preview for Interstellar (starring Matthew McConaughey who is, coincidentally, also rumored to appear in an upcoming movie about the Free State of Jones). The premise of this movie, or at least what I gleaned from the preview, is that Planet Earth is no longer sustainable, and lead man McConaughey must seek another world inhabitable by humankind. That leads him on a perilous mission to outer space – and leaves the viewer (me) wondering if he succeeds in saving the human race?

I let my mind sort of wander down this path – you know, the scenario in which humanity is no longer able to live on earth and must seek out other planets for long-term lodging. It wasn’t pretty. I concluded that we’d all die here worshipping the gods of immediate gratification.

The American Scholar frames the issue by referencing an old but apparently timeless work from the 1970s: “Our growing self-absorption was starving the idealism and aspirations of the postwar era. The ‘logic of individualism,’ argued [Christopher] Lasch in his 1978 polemic, The Culture of Narcissism, had transformed everyday life into a brutal social competition for affirmation…Yet even [Lasch] had no idea how self-centered mainstream culture would become. Nor could [he] have imagined the degree to which the selfish reflexes of the individual would become the template for an entire society.”

The American Scholar continues, “Our whole socioeconomic system is adopting an almost childlike impulsiveness, wholly obsessed with short-term gain and narrow self-interest and increasingly oblivious to long-term consequences.”

And this final point brings me full circle. If this is an apt description of the current state of our culture, then the Interstellar conundrum isn’t so much a challenge as it is a doomsday scenario.

Our intellectual energies are focused on the here and now. The consumer-driven marketplace is developing products that reflect these larger societal trends. It seems the latest question is: How can I use as little brain as possible when at home? Oh yeah, by purchasing that Amazon Echo thing (a black cylinder that responds to your voice, plays music, answers questions, keeps track of grocery lists, etc.). Because writing your own list is just too taxing.

That’s not what I call progress, you guys. We’re spending far too much time on things that – in my humble opinion – don’t matter. A black cone in your household may make your life easier, but it won’t put a man on Mars.

Sometimes I think aspirational goals like space travel seem far too, well, aspirational for my generation. Are we really too self-centered to care about the future? Have we really lost the vision for scientific exploration, for technological advances that matter?

I’m not sure. I think my generation can overcome its self-absorption, but we’ll need visionary leaders who don’t comply with the social constructs of an impulse society.

I’ll cease my rambling with this quote from the President who championed space travel and captivated an entire nation: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Will my generation choose to do what is hard or what is easy?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hobnobbing an annual tradition that keeps on growing

*First appeared in the Nov. 5, 2014, edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

More than 1,800 business leaders, elected officials, and others in search of a serious networking opportunity attended the 18th Annual Hobnob Mississippi hosted by the Mississippi Economic Council last week.

It was a record crowd that drew folks from all across this fine state.

While the event is usually held in an outdoor location – specifically, under a big tent at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum – the political rally-styled event was moved indoors to the Mississippi Coliseum this year. (Organizers opted not to tempt Mother Nature who was threatening inclement weather.)

My hobnobbing started somewhat late this year, and I missed a few of the early speakers. That being said, I’ll give you a recap of the ones I saw, just in case you missed the annual event.

I arrived just in time to see Speaker of the House Philip Gunn deliver comments to the large crowd. Gunn’s comments focused largely on the efforts of the Republican-majority Legislature to improve the quality of education for Mississippi’s kids.

He cited the MEC-led Blueprint report that endorsed charter schools, saying Republicans have implemented charter schools since taking control of the House and Senate.

Charter schools are about making sure parents have a choice in where to send their children to school. “You’re not bound to your hometown for your doctor, your lawyer, your mechanic – but when it comes to schools, you haven’t had that flexibility,” said Gunn of the state’s education system.

He touted the state’s early childhood pilot program and said Republicans had increased teacher pay along with implementing the first-ever performance-based compensation component. Importantly, he noted the Legislature’s funding commitment to education, saying public schools had received significant increases even when other state priorities saw cuts in their operating budgets.

“Don’t let anyone mislead you into questioning” the Legislature’s commitment to public education, Gunn said, a not-so-subtle reference to the current efforts by Democrat-aligned groups to paint Republicans as anti-education.

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber spoke next with boundless enthusiasm about the city’s future. The Mayor told the business crowd that Jackson plans to lead on several fronts. “Crime is down” and the capital city is “starting a national conversation on infrastructure improvement.” (That was good to hear, since my water color alternates between a watered-down Lipton tea and a more stout Earl Gray.)

Both Travis Childers and Sen. Thad Cochran spoke at the event, but I won’t recount their comments. By the time you read this column, that race will be over…I think.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves dug in hard at the left-wing policies of the President, saying Obamacare, with its continuous rollout of regulations and fees, was like “death by 1,000 cuts” on Mississippi businesses, causing them to reduce wages, invest less in their company, or sometimes both.

Reeves touted the Republicans’ educational achievements, saying Mississippi “is a leader, not a laggard” on teacher pay. By getting the state’s fiscal house in order, the GOP Legislature has been able to put more money into priority areas like education – to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars more over the last three years.

To make sure our children are ready for the next wave of innovation and jobs, taxpayers expect results from the state’s educational entities. “That’s why reforms must drive our spending,” explained Reeves, who also said educational opportunity should not be dictated by a child’s zip code or the parent’s profession.

If you looked up “fiscal hawk” in the dictionary, you’d likely find a picture of Reeves; so, it’s not surprising he spent a large portion of his speech on financial issues. In the last year, two out of every three state employees have had a pay raise, causing Reeves to ask: Isn’t it time for taxpayers to get a pay raise (through tax cuts)?

He said it would be difficult to do, particularly given that state agencies have already asked for over a billion dollars in new spending for the coming fiscal year. But, he said, “I’m sticking with my conservative principles to get our state’s fiscal house in order, which means having the courage to say no.”

Gov. Phil Bryant spent the majority of his speech combatting any negative perceptions about Mississippi by highlighting positive rankings the state has amassed over the past few months.

Mississippi ranks among the best in the nation for economic development; our cost-of-living is significantly lower (meaning our dollar goes further here than in, say, Washington, D.C.); and we come in at number five in the nation in terms of women-owned businesses. The Magnolia State is even ranked the best county in which to practice medicine (thanks, tort reform!).

Miss Mississippi Jasmine Murray entertained the crowd right before lunch, and that’s when I skirted off to the next thing. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable Hobnob – so enjoyable, in fact, that I’ll be sure to attend again next year.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Empower Mississippi

*First appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend and Laurel-native Grant Callen has a new job: Founder and President of Empower Mississippi, a new grassroots advocacy organization based in the Metro Jackson area.

The group’s lofty name is matched by its lofty goal: “To create opportunity and make Mississippi the most free and prosperous state in the nation.” To do that, they’re empowering citizens with tools and information to engage in the public policy process, holding the Legislature accountable through initiatives like scorecards, and pushing for reforms that align with their mission.

Initially, the group will focus on education choice, meaning they’ll be fighting for legislation and other regulatory changes that empower parents, not bureaucrats, to make educational decisions for their children. The group’s very existence is a threat to the status quo, which, by the way, is already hollering.

About a week ago, I got a press release announcing Empower’s first-ever education choice scorecard based on votes taken during the 2012, 2013, and 2014 legislative sessions. Just a few days later, I saw an email from another education group imploring readers not to be fooled by “the great lie that is school choice.”

Coincidence? I doubt it. Like many Jones Countians before him, Grant has successfully ruffled some feathers. In the education realm, that’s the telltale sign of doing something right.

Empower’s Education Choice Scorecard grades Mississippi legislators on key education votes involving bills related to dyslexia scholarships, charter schools, speech language scholarships, and special needs education. Here’s how Free State legislators scored:

On the House side, Reps. Bo Eaton and Omeria Scott both received the lowest grade possible (F). Rep. Johnny Stringer received a D minus. Reps. Bobby Shows and Gary Staples both received a score of A plus.

On the Senate side, Sen. Chris McDaniel received a score of A plus, but Sen. Haskins Montgomery received an F.

A full list of scores and the methodology used to determine rankings can be accessed at their website, www.empowerms.org.

In addition to the scorecard, Empower Mississippi will track legislation, alert citizens to key votes, and help connect citizens with legislative leaders. While education choice is the group’s initial focus, Empower is also dedicated to advocating for economic freedom and a fiscally responsible state government.

With Callen at the helm, Empower is currently touring the state, bringing its message of education choice to parents, teachers, community leaders, and citizens statewide. Groups interested in hearing from Empower can make that request on the organization’s website. (And, if I had to guess, I bet Callen would make a special trip to his native city to share the Empower message.)

In the organization’s press release, Callen explained that empowering parents with education choice tears down “barriers and [helps] ensure that every child in the state has the opportunity to receive a quality education. Implementing policies that promote economic freedom…[removes] obstacles for people to earn a living in a field of their choice and [promotes] long-term economic growth for the state.”

Over the years, I have developed a healthy dose of cynicism about organizations and their true intentions. But having an opportunity to get to know and work alongside Grant Callen the past few years has shown me he’s a man whose sincerity I ought not question. Callen is a true believer – he’s got a passion for empowering citizens to take control of their destiny, and, in his mind, that starts with education choice.

I tend to agree.

Hats off to my fellow Laurel native who’s using his talents to help give parents a choice. Then again, it’s not about the parents, is it? To quote Callen: In Mississippi, “greater choice is needed. For the children trapped by a failing system, help can’t come soon enough.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Surfin’ the Net: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (Miss.) Galaxy

*First appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Ever find yourself browsing the internet for updates on Mississippi trends but don’t know where to go?

Don’t panic. Here’s a list of some of the sites I visit to keep up with politics, policy, gossip, and just good old fashioned news. (Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with 42 websites, for those of you paying attention.)

Let’s start with what is probably the most popular political website in the state, if paid political ads are the measure: Y’all Politics (yallpolitics.com). YP has multiple contributors and includes political videos, original content, summary of breaking news, and a nice collection of blogs in the state. Its content is divided by category (“2014 MS Election” or “Senate 2014”). For the political newcomer, YP is a must-visit site.

Another high-traffic website is Jackson Jambalaya which, as its name indicates, focuses on the politics of Jackson and the Metro Area, in addition to Miss. politics. This blog is known for diving deep into issues (such as state retirement) and is usually among the first to report breaking news. The blog is maintained by the “Kingfish,” a name referenced in its address: kingfish1935.blogspot.com. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed.

The political reporting team of the Clarion Ledger maintains the Political Ledger blog (clarionledger.com). Geoff Pender, Jimmie Gates, Clay Chandler, and Sam Hall “bring you the inside scoop on politics,” according to the daily newspaper. Sam Hall used to maintain a separate blog (Daily Ledes) but ceased writing on that blog in August. However, its content remains available on the paper’s website.

Along the Gulf Coast, internet surfers ought to check out the Crawdaddy blog (sunherald.com), a political site operated by the Sun Herald newspaper staff. Billed as “South Mississippi’s political blog,” this site has a charming logo: An exuberant lobster, clad in an American-themed tie and top hat, waving Old Glory and the Mississippi flag.

As Hitchhiker’s aptly states, “It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.” If this type of biting commentary is your style, check out the Weidie Report (weidiereport.com). Wayne Weidie operates this blog “unabashed and with unfiltered integrity.” He draws on his years of experience in journalism, politics, and government affairs to provide readers with an honest assessment of Miss. politics.

Columnist and political jack-of-all-trades Brian Perry maintains the Capstone Public Affairs Blog (capstonepublicaffairs.com/blog). This blog provides a look at state, regional, and national politics and often provides further context on Perry’s columns which are published statewide – including in this newspaper, on occasion.

Switching to policy, here are a few websites for the weary political traveler looking for more substantive (translation: nerdy) commentary.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy is a conservative think-tank which works to “advance the ideals of limited government, free markets, and strong traditional families by influencing public policy, informing the media, and equipping the public with information and perspective.” The website (mspolicy.org) contains a link to its MCPP Commentary which features radio clips from the organization as well as explanations of relevant policy issues and how they affect individual liberties.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mississippi’s bluer residents need look no further than the Policy Matters blog maintained by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center (mepconline.org). According to the site, MEPC conducts independent research to “ensure that the needs of low and moderate-income Mississippians, in particular, are considered in the development and implementation of public policy with the ultimate goal of improving access to economic opportunity.”

Similarly, ReThink Mississippi (rethinkms.org) provides a progressive analysis of policy issues in Mississippi. RM bills itself as “a forum for insight, analysis, and debate about Mississippi’s critical long-term issues – run by and intended for the people committed to working on these issues in the future.” If you’re looking for a discussion on race, sexual identity, economics, education, or – heck – the price of an Egg Bowl ticket, this website’s for you.

This list is merely a snapshot of the sites available for those interested in perusing Mississippi goings-on. Have you read other blogs that deserve a mention? Email me, and I’ll add them to my blog (rebekahstaples.blogspot.com).

You might wonder why anyone blogs, but I think the answer is simple: We want to make our state better and know it’s a mistake to think you can solve any major problems with just potatoes – you need words, too.

SITES NOT INCLUDED IN ORIGINAL COLUMN BUT WORTH CHECKING OUT...

Red/Blue Review (Andy Taggart & Jere Nash). This is a video blog of sorts that includes conservative commentary from Andy Taggart and not-so-conservative commentary from Jere Nash. These guys not only appear on WLBT, the NBC affiliate in the Metro Area, but they've written several books on Mississippi history. Definitely worth the watch.

Statewatch. Statewatch under the direction of Mikell McLeod provides real-time tracking of legislation through this innovative web tool. They call it "in-depth legislative intelligence," and they mean it. Check 'em out if you're interested in keeping up in real-time with legislative happenings.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lessons from the matriarch of my American family

*First appeared in the Oct. 15, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper.

This past weekend marked my mom’s XXth birthday. Mom’s birthday got me to thinking about the importance of family and how lucky my brother and I are to have had a great family nest growing up. But not everyone is so lucky, and too often we see the symptoms of that larger societal problem – the breakdown of the American family – in the form of dropout rates, poverty issues, incarceration, teen/out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and so on.

With that in mind, and in honor of my mom’s birthday, I’d like to examine the lessons imparted to me by the matriarch of my American family. Some are silly, some are not – and that itself is a great reflection of my mother.

Lesson #1: “Don’t cross your eyes.”

As a child, I enjoyed making weird faces and crossing my eyes. Mom warned me against this, saying it would have bad consequences (“your eyes will get stuck that way.”). As a four-year old, I climbed on a plank, stood on one leg, and crossed my eyes (imagine a tiny kung-fu fighter in the crane position). At that point, I saw two planks (one real and one not, thanks to my double-vision) and chose the wrong plank to put my foot on. I fell dramatically to the ground, breaking my arm along the way.

No, my eyes “didn’t get stuck that way,” but I did learn my lesson. Adult translation? Actions have consequences.

Lesson #2: “Have personality!”

Gosh, if only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Before going to school, before meeting new people, before going into a job interview, her advice was the same. Mom encouraged me to put my best foot forward regardless of the situation. Be engaging, have personality, make a name for yourself – and you’ll go far.

It’s such a simple yet powerful lesson about human nature. We don’t want to be friends with the boring; we don’t want to do business with the dull. We want to hitch our wagons to those who, for lack of a better phrase, “have personality.” Think of this way – when’s the last time you voted for the boring dude at the ballot box? You didn’t.

Lesson #3: “It takes a friend to be a friend.”

This lesson is pretty self-explanatory, but my mom preached it to me incessantly when I was a kid. I suppose she thought I might treat other children like I treated my brother (with a yell and a fist). She told me the secret to having a lot of friends was being one first.

Honestly, I’m still working on incorporating this lesson into life (look, I need alone time – and lots of it). But how many children grow up without hearing this simple piece of advice?

Lesson #4: “Never leave home without fresh clothes, lipstick, and earrings.”

This lesson can also be titled, “Are you really leaving the house looking like that?” Mom believes strongly in looking your best when going out in public, which means matching clothes, brushed hair, “putting on some lips” (neutral shades are forbidden), and earrings.

I’ve taken her advice as it relates to professional activities, but wild hair and pajamas aren’t necessarily off limits in Kroger (sorry, Mom).

Knowing how to dress professionally seems like a basic skill, but it’s not. In the workforce world, this and related traits are known as “soft skills.” Today’s workers have trouble with tasks like knowing how to dress and showing up on time – things my mom taught me at an early age. This soft skills deficit leads to lower productivity and harms our economy.

Lesson #5: “You’re special.”

This has been something of a running joke in my family. I once told my mom that I wasn’t special, and she responded by giving me a teddy bear figurine that said “You’re special.” To this day, my whole family writes “you’re special” on every birthday card and Christmas present I receive.

It’s funny to us now (and I’m pretty sure my brother uses it as a taunt), but it’s a message that every child ought to hear. Children must be told they’re special. They must know someone believes in them and their future. They must be loved, nurtured, and have their dreams encouraged by parents and guardians. My mom and dad made sure that we knew they believed in us and supported our aspirations.

Mom taught me many lessons and continues to introduce new ones. Some of them will stick (like the fiscal responsibility gleaned through bargain shopping); some of them won’t (like cooking). I am thankful to have a mom who, along with my father, chose to raise their children responsibly and impart life lessons that prepared us for the so-called “real world.”

Happy birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fun with fonts

*First appeared in the Oct. 8 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to some interesting news from our neighboring state (the one that has counties, not parishes). It was a story about potential cost-savings achieved by changing the font used in official government mailings. Intriguing, right?

You could say Alabamans are trying to get with the modern times (New Roman).

According to the political website Yellowhammernews.com, taxpayers could reap at least $300,000 in annual savings by switching from Times New Roman to Garamond, based on information provided to a state legislator by the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office.

State senator Slade Blackwell, a Republican, told Yellowhammer that Alabama “would save between 20 percent and 30 percent on ink and toner every year. Taxpayers expect us to be good stewards of their money...This is another great opportunity for us to continue streamlining and downsizing state government.”

The state reports spending about $1.5 million each year through state agency ink and toner contracts, with public higher education institutions spending even more, approximately $3.2 million annually. Switching to Garamond is expected to shave about 25 percent of these costs. More savings could be achieved by including local governing bodies, such as cities and counties.

Sen. Blackwell confirmed to Yellowhammer that he will sponsor legislation in 2015 mandating the use of Garamond for internal printing at agencies, departments, institutions, and other governmental bodies.

According to Yellowhammer, the idea seems to have come from an unlikely source: A sixth-grader conducting a school science project. The Pittsburg, Penn. student found that his school district could save $21,000 by switching fonts. Teachers were so impressed with his project that they encouraged him to send the research to Harvard, which in turn urged him to send the research to the federal government.

Uncle Sam could save about $400 million by adopting Garamond, according to the student. But others say those figures aren’t true, since contracts are often written on a per-page basis, regardless of ink and toner used.

Additionally, there are some very detailed ways in which ink output per font is measured, and experts say Garamond isn’t as legible as Time New Roman when put at the same point font. This means Garamond would have to be printed larger in order to achieve maximum legibility, thus negating any potential cost-savings.

By the way, here is a little background on our dueling fonts. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, British newspaper The Times commissioned a new font in 1931 after criticism the paper was badly printed and typographically antiquated. The result was known as – you guessed it – Times New Roman. Garamond, on the other hand, is a reference to its creator, French publisher and punch-cutter Claude Garamont. Several contemporary fonts, including Granjon and Sabon, reflect his influence.

After writing all of that, I officially feel like a font nerd.

Alabama isn’t the only state looking at fonts. Apparently Missouri is considering a similar bill. Could Mississippi be next?

Only time will tell whether this idea has merit – and if the Magnolia State stands to benefit from this unique approach to printing. In an age of governance where every idea (good or bad) has a political overtone, it’s unusual to stumble upon something as truly apolitical as font style.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The making of the state budget

*First appeared in the October 1, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

Most Mississippians don’t follow the legislative budgeting process. It’s a bit wonky and not often described in a relatable way. I’ll try to remedy that in this column by demonstrating how budgeting is a lot like the courting process – the ups and downs, the thrills and chills, and the building of an institution (be it marriage or state government).

There are no storks and no pastel-colored ribbons involved in the making of a state budget, but the process required for smooth budgeting is not entirely dissimilar to the process of making a family.

We’ll start at the beginning: Speed dating. This process occurs each year during the Joint Legislative Budget Committee budget hearings. Instead of a bar, state agencies are herded into a room at the Woolfolk Building where they have about 15 minutes to dazzle the members of the JLBC. Agencies talk about what they like; budget committee members talk about what they don’t like. Then, if the agency is lucky, they’ll get matched. This could be a general agreement among JLBC members that the agency needs a budget increase or simply one legislator who decides to champion their cause.

In fact, budget speed dating began this week. By the time you’re reading this, agencies like the Dept. of Education, Dept. of Corrections, and State Board of Health have already made a pass at next year’s budget. (Don’t worry though – agencies will get their full vetting during the actual legislative session. This is just a warm-up.)

After the weeklong speed dates subside, the JLBC members must reconvene to determine which agency they’d like to take to the dance, a.k.a. the “legislative budget recommendation.” Who will lawmakers invite to dance with them? Will they choose to fund the budget increase requested by certain departments? And so forth. “Priority agencies” always find their way into the legislative budget recommendation, but priority is often in the eye of the beholder, er, lawmaker.

So we’ve done speed dating, and we’ve slow-danced at homecoming. What’s next?

In January, lawmakers officially reconvene to start working on the nuts-and-bolts of a budget. This is the DTR phase – or, “define the relationship” for those of you not keeping track with adolescent lingo.

In defining the relationship, lawmakers will revisit issues again and again and again (sounds like a relationship, doesn’t it?). Why do you need this budget increase? Where are we going with this program? What are your long-term goals? Why can’t we trust your agency? Are you the kind of agency I can take home to mom – or at least to the floor of the Senate?

Making it through the DTR phase is difficult but manageable. And, if your agency is lucky enough to navigate this process, you’ve made it past one of the hardest parts.

Marriage comes next, and that’s when lawmakers of both chambers agree to fund a particular agency or program. Budget leaders of both houses must give the verbal “I do” before a final budget can be adopted.

Yet a marriage (or, in this case, a general agreement) isn’t the final step in this family-making ordeal. This last part is the most mysterious and least understood of budgeting processes. It’s called “conference” and, like the birthing process, it entails a lot of false starts, sweat, a little pain, and ultimately a bundle of joy (a finished budget!).

From budget hearings to conference reports, the budgeting process is arduous, complicated, and altogether wonky. But it determines how your taxpayer dollars are used, and that’s why all of us have an interest in understanding these courtship-like processes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Telehealth can aid rural communities, cut costs

*First appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

I had an interesting chat the other day with my friend and colleague who manages the state’s Broadband Connect Coalition, a group whose function includes mapping out ways in which increased broadband can improve the education, government, workforce, and healthcare sectors.

The leaders of the broadband group made a recommendation in 2011 that Mississippi ought to establish a trade association focused solely on health information technology, and the state obliged, albeit slowly. In 2014, the Mississippi Telehealth Association was formally established to develop telehealth policies and programs designed to improve healthcare outcomes.

When I think of telehealth, I envision chatting with a doctor via Skype. Turns out, telehealth encompasses much, much more. The federal government defines telehealth as the “use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.”

In our state, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is a leader on telehealth issues. According to UMMC, residents in more than half of Mississippi’s counties must drive 40 minutes (or more) to receive specialty healthcare. This poses a serious challenge to ensuring our residents receive quality healthcare in a timely fashion.

Insert telehealth technologies. They can help bridge the gap for the residents who live in these rural areas (which is funny to say, since we’re a predominantly rural state). For example, UMMC has used online video technology to provide remote medical care, including services such as wellness care and disaster response, to more than 500,000 Mississippians since 2003. Their services include over 30 different medical specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, emergency medicine, and stroke, and extend to more than 100 clinical sites.

UMMC telehealth services are available in all but six Mississippi counties. According to the Medical Center, Jones County-based telehealth services are provided by South Central Regional Medical Center.

Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind telehealth partnership was announced by Gov. Phil Bryant. The Diabetes Telehealth Network, a public-private initiative including UMMC, North Sunflower Medical Center, GE Healthcare, Intel-GE Care Innovations, and C-Spire, is providing remote care management to diabetes patients in the Miss. Delta with an eye toward improving outcomes and reducing costs.

In 2010, 12.1 percent of adults in this area reported a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, and 293 died from complications related to the disease. Estimates from the American Diabetes Association put a $2.74 billion price tag on expenses related to diabetes management.

Participants in the Diabetes Telehealth Network will input daily information, such as glucose and blood pressure, onto specialized tablets provided to them through the initiative. This information provides clinicians a “just-in-time” snapshot of patients’ health status, allowing them to easily adjust medical care, schedule phone calls, or set up video chats with patients as needed.

While the program is ongoing and final results are not yet available, this initiative shows great promise in improving access to quality healthcare, particularly in underserved areas like the Mississippi Delta.

Information Week expects the telehealth industry to grow sixfold by 2017, as remote patient monitoring ramps up across the nation. As telehealth increasingly becomes a part of our medical infrastructure, Mississippi must be prepared to meet challenges posed by this new delivery system. Already we know these challenges include licensure issues, such as reciprocity of state licenses, as well as universal standards of practice.

With the right support, these obstacles are surmountable. Political leaders in Mississippi have thrown their weight behind telehealth as a legitimate solution to improving healthcare. Congressman Gregg Harper has been a leader, authoring the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker have sponsored similar legislation in 2014.

Closer to home, the Miss. Legislature has also taken up the telehealth mantle. A bill passed in the last session requires health insurance providers to cover “store-and-forward” and remote patient monitoring at the same rate as in-person consultations. (Store-and-forward refers to platforms that allow providers to receive consultations from remote physicians on patient tests and scans.)

A study released this week and published in Telemedicine and e-Health shows that over a 14-year period, the use of telemedicine to manage chronic diseases yielded “clear benefits including fewer and shorter hospital stays, fewer emergency room visits, less severe illness, and even fewer deaths.”

With the ability to improve outcomes faster and cheaper, it’s no wonder telehealth is getting the attention of healthcare experts, industry publications, and policymakers.

Provided the technology continues to work as expected and keeps a sharp focus on patient care, telehealth – and all that it encompasses – is good news for Mississippians.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My thoughts on corporal punishment

*First appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Adrian Peterson had a bad week. He’s been indicted on charges of child abuse related to whipping his son to the point of bleeding. Peterson, who plays professional football for the Minnesota Vikings, is fighting the charges. He’s told several news outlets that he was disciplined as a child in the same way and “never intended or thought [injury] would happen…I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”

Is corporal punishment child abuse? It depends on your perspective – and, in Peterson’s case, both the jury and injury.

According to news reports, parents are allowed in every state to use corporal punishment as a means of discipline, so long as the force is “reasonable.” Mississippi law stipulates that reasonable corporal punishment will not cause serious bodily harm, such as bone fracturing, permanent disfigurement or scarring, internal bleeding or trauma to any organ, brain damage, and impairment of any bodily function.

Roughly 19 states allow corporal punishment within public schools. In Mississippi, teachers and other district personnel may reasonably use “physical force as a means to maintain discipline and enforce school rules for self-protection or for the protection of other students from disruptive students.” It’s up to school districts to decide whether or not to employ this type of punishment.

Back to Peterson. His case will be handled in both a court of law and of public opinion, and that’s the genesis of this column. I don’t care to opine on his specific case (particularly as I don’t know all the details), but I’ve been amazed by the immediate rush to judgment on both sides of the paddle.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on corporal punishment.

The Staples Household believes strongly in corporal punishment. As a child, I was often on the receiving end of this type of discipline. Switches were my mother’s specialty, and she’d even “allow” me to pick out my own. My father offered no such choice. His trusty belt sufficed.

I was whipped so many times that I don’t remember specifics. What I do remember is that the punishment system was rigged in my brother’s favor, as he never got as many whippings as I did. (Perhaps the bigger question, then, is not whether corporal punishment is child abuse, but whether it is evenly distributed among siblings. I’ll volunteer for that case study.)

All joking aside, corporal punishment in my family didn’t do irreparable harm to my brother or me. It didn’t make us violent madmen. It served its purpose quite well: We broke the rules, and we paid the painful price. Did it completely stop us from disobeying? No, but we defied the laws of Papa Sam with a more acute sense of the risks involved.

Because of my upbringing, I don’t raise eyebrows when I hear a child has been whipped for disobedience. That’s just a normal part of childhood, based on the sum of my experiences.

But I don’t agree with those who contend all forms of physical force used on children are “reasonable.” Obviously, if you break a bone or disfigure a face, you’ve gone too far. There are some limits, and parents should be held accountable when they exceed those boundaries.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with the over-reactive group which believes all forms of corporal punishment are abusive. I don’t believe that whipping children (in a reasonable way) is cause for a lifetime of therapy or requires an immediate reporting to childcare services.

Extremists on both sides irritate me. I’m not a parent, and I’m not advocating for either child-rearing strategy. It’s up to each family to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Sure, I’ve got my biases. I grew up thinking most of the kids who didn’t get spanked were brats, and most of the parents who didn’t spank their kids were pushovers. I also got exposed to irony at a much earlier age than the non-spanked kids who never heard their parents claim, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

However the Peterson case pans out, I hope we’ll remember that Adrian Peterson’s parenting strategy is not a bellwether for corporal punishment in America.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paying my last respect to Terry Brown

*First appeared in the Sept. 10, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

My friend Sen. Terry Brown passed away last week after a brief but intense battle with lung cancer. Doubtful many people in the Jones County area know Sen. Brown, but his life – and legislative legacy – is one worth knowing. I hope to pay him one last respect by sharing a few memories.

It’s hard for me to imagine a legislative session without Sen. Brown – Terry, as he was known. His bass voice booming through the hallways, Terry wasn’t one for quiet entrances. As a wide-eyed teenager, I didn’t know what to think about him when we first met several years ago. Is this guy crazy? Does he always yell? Can he really help steer legislation through committee?

The answer, I soon learned, was yes. He was in fact a little crazy (and proud of it, you see); he always shouted (Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says Terry never had an “inside voice”); and his ability to garner support for legislation was virtually unmatched.

He was one-of-a-kind in every sense of the phrase.

Terry represented Lowndes County in the Legislature, serving most recently as the Miss. Senate’s unanimous choice for President Pro Tempore, which is a Latin term that basically means he was second in command. Prior to the Senate, Terry served in the Miss. House from 1988 to 2000.

I got to work with Terry when he was chairman of the old Fees, Salaries, and Administration Committee (it’s been reconstituted as the Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee). Terry’s committee oversaw bills that would remove agencies from the regulations of the State Personnel Board, which Gov. Barbour thought – and Terry agreed – would help streamline government.

Terry would make sure this bill passed his committee and the full Senate floor, only to watch it die in the then-Democrat majority House of Representatives – year after year after year. No matter, though, because he thought it was the right thing to do. Let’s shove it in their face, he would say. Let’s make them answer questions as to why they don’t want to save taxpayer dollars.

Terry could be abrasive, that’s for sure. But his brusque nature was rather endearing once you got to know him. On more than one occasion did I hear someone exclaim: That senator just cussed me! On more than one occasion did I hear the response: Who, that giant fellow over there? Yeah, that’s Terry. I think it means he likes you.

Terry liked to give people nicknames. For coastal residents, the nickname was simply “fish-eaters.” The nickname caught on, and now several coastal residents (particularly legislators) refer to themselves as “fish-eaters.”

Terry referred to me as “nerd.” Everything I did was prefaced by “nerd”: Nerd reading, nerd walking, etc. Everything I used was a nerd utensil: Nerd pencil, nerd pen, and, my personal favorite, nerd canister (this was in reference to a water bottle I used).

He called the shots just as he saw them, and he was usually right.

Politics were important to Terry, and he was as conservative as they come. Yet his jovial nature and unique sense of humor endeared him to his legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His funeral was attended by as many Democrats as Republicans – one last testament to the bipartisan nature of his engaging personality.

Gov. Barbour told the Clarion Ledger that he knew Terry since the Fordice administration, that he was one of his most faithful supporters, and that Terry supported him even in times “when maybe his own inclination was not the same as mine.”

Terry was one of the most loyal people I knew. He was loyal to Gov. Barbour, loyal to Lt. Gov. Reeves, loyal to friends, and most of all, loyal to his constituents back home. He’s a big reason why Columbus has had so much economic development success in recent years, including major employers like PACCAR, Airbus, and Severstal.

One of my favorite stories about Terry was told during his funeral. Lt. Gov. Reeves recalled that Terry helped him on the campaign trail several years ago. One day they were speaking at a Republican women’s club, and Terry introduce the candidate as follows:

“Now listen here. They made a mistake in letting you women vote, but as long as you’re going to vote, I hope you’ll pick my man Tate Reeves for Treasurer.”

It reminds me of what Gov. Barbour said: Terry could be “so impolitic, but was always fun and funny. And if he thought of something and it was politically incorrect, he didn’t let that stop him from expressing it.”

Terry was a skilled legislator who was respected by his peers in both legislative chambers. He made friends easily, was liked by all, and was an institution unto himself.

Terry’s legislative seat will be filled and his position in the Senate will be taken. But Terry Brown – the man, the legislative legend, the legacy – will never be replaced.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A few positives in a sea of negativity

*First appeared in the Laurel Chronicle newspaper on September 3, 2014

It’s hard to watch the news without observing a local tragedy, an international crisis or, as of late, both. The constant barrage of negativity does a number to my psyche and, I imagine, yours. The world’s on fire, they say, and we’re starting to believe them.

More often than not, the steady stream of bad news is a byproduct of the phenomenon of 24-hours news coverage. Frantic car chase in a city 500 miles from you? Stay tuned; we have details on the suspect’s sweater vest. Infectious virus located on an isolated island? Stay tuned; we’ll give you thirteen ways your neighbor may be infected.

I don’t often watch the talking heads, but only because I doubt I’ll hear news that isn’t designed to push a certain agenda. (If left unchecked, my cynicism gets the best of me.)

But cynics aren’t part of the solution to any problems. The endless news cycles may drown us in information, but at least we’re (probably) more informed at the end of the reports. An informed citizenry is a powerful one, so in some ways keeping up with the goings-on of local, national, and international events is a civic responsibility.

That being said, today I have no desire to impart with you any snotty political jokes, no tales of tragedy, no problem to analyze. I’ll simply remind you about a few positive things happening in the Magnolia State. This is what you might call a classic “feel good” piece.

Last week, it was reported that Mississippi women fared pretty doggone well in a new study on women’s equality. WalletHub found that 25 percent more women hold a bachelor’s degree, making us the state with the highest education gap tilted toward women. In our state, women tend to live, on average, about 20 percent longer than men, which is another piece of good news (for half of us, anyway).

Mississippi’s ranking on the “education and health” component was top of the nation. That’s great news, ladies.

A Gallup poll measuring well-being recently found that Mississippi was among the top eleven states that had made the steadiest improvement in this area since 2010, when the recession officially ended. Gallup measured things like emotional health, work environment, and life evaluation. In other words, we’re happier.

The Tax Foundation observed in a recent study that the real value of $100 in Mississippi, where we enjoy lower cost-of-living than elsewhere, is about $115. This means we can buy more stuff with a Benjamin than those unfortunate dwellers of other states. Wonder if those Labor Day sales are still ongoing?

Good news isn’t just at the statewide level; in fact, Jones County had its own flavor of a positive (and historic) event last week. The South Jones Braves football team saw its female field goal kicker, Mary Kate Smith, perform flawlessly in her first game with the team. Even this former Northeast Jones Tiger thinks that’s pretty cool.

Speaking of tigers, I’m reminded of the baby boom going on at the Jackson Zoo. In 2014 alone, the zoo has welcomed a new Sumatran tiger cub, a baby springbok (similar to a gazelle); a beaver kit; red wolf cubs; red river hog piglets; and even a baby orangutan.

There’s nothing more feel good than the birth of baby animals, so I had to throw that in there, guys. Come on. No laughing.

Is this column a bit silly? For sure. But perhaps it will give you something positive to think on next time you watch a missile soar across the cable television.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Government gets in a tangle

*First appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

Think the Republican Party mantra of “smaller government” is empty rhetoric? I’ll bet you’ll reconsider that skepticism after watching “Locked Out: A Mississippi Success Story,” the twenty-six minute documentary on hair braiding regulations in Mississippi.

You read that right. “Hair braiding.” Granted, this isn’t the first profession that comes to mind when conservatives bemoan the onerous nature of government overreach. Yet its unique story best exemplifies the impact a government regulation can wreak on a business, an entrepreneurial spirit, a community, and a culture.

More than ten years ago, Melony Armstrong of Tupelo decided she wanted to earn an honest living by hair braiding, a skill she’d learn from an expert in Atlanta. According to her husband, Pastor Kevin Armstrong, Melony had this epiphany after having her own hair braided. “I thought to myself, her hair is that tight she must have lost her mind,” Pastor Armstrong recalled in the documentary.

For about six months, Melony practiced her profession on mannequins inside the couple’s home (much to the annoyance of her husband). When she felt confident enough to braid hair professionally, Melony took the next step by seeking a license through the Mississippi Board of Cosmetology.

And that’s where the story gets interesting. The Board refused to license Melony, telling her that she needed to attend a board-approved school for at least 18 months (which cost about $10,000, by the way) before she could legally open her business.

“The law discouraged me,” Melony remembered, particularly in a state like Mississippi where, at that time, you could become a tattoo artist, firefighter, police officer, and a hunting instructor “in less time than it would have taken…to get a cosmetology license.”

Aghast at this cost-prohibitive requirement, Melony sought other options. Ultimately, Melony’s passion took her from a salon in Tupelo to the Mississippi State Capitol, where she was able to garner legislative support to reform the restrictive laws.

According to the documentary, the reforms worked: Immediately after the law went into effect, more than 300 people received their licenses to professionally braid hair, and over 45 salons opened across the state. In 2005, Melony Armstrong opened “Naturally Speaking,” the first licensed salon of its kind, at a licensing cost of about $25 dollars.

The impact of the law change on Mississippians isn’t rhetoric; it’s real. The law “opened up a new hope for me that maybe someday I can [open a salon],” said one woman interviewed. Another woman observed the law change gave her “a reason to want to be a business owner…it was not a dream anymore. I could actually step out and do it.”

Melony’s story is compelling because it’s easily understood. She had a dream that was essentially unachievable because of senseless government regulations. Because of her efforts, the laws were reformed in favor of business. Notably, deregulating the industry had broad-based support. Even Democrats agreed.

Democrat Representative Steve Holland is featured in the documentary, explaining that he “just didn’t sense where the government should intrude…in something as culturally-based” as hair braiding. Democrat Senator Hillman Frazier said he wanted to make sure hair braiders had a “free market system and that people would be able to make their trade based on the economy.”

Unfortunately, Melony’s success is the exception, not the rule. Hers is a local perspective on a national problem. As a June Forbes article succinctly notes, “wrestling down federal spending and taxation won’t suffice anymore. Regulations are equally as punitive.”

The column references a Competitive Enterprise Institute study which calculated the cost of federal regulations to be about $1.86 trillion annually – more than half the size of the President’s recent $3.9 trillion budget proposal. If U.S. federal regs were a country, it’d be the tenth largest (between Italy and India). Localizing these numbers means the typical family pays about $15,000 per year on regulations, or nearly one-quarter of household income.

That’s outrageous.

Onerous government regulations harm business. They choke innovation and break entrepreneurial spirits. When Republicans champion fewer government regulations, Democrats shriek about Big Business and Crony Capitalism. What they don’t mention is the local impact of burdensome regulations – like requiring 18 months of classes and $10,000 in costs before obtaining a cosmetology license.

No one thinks that’s a good idea – not even Democrats.

BONUS - Here's the documentary referenced in the column.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mississippi migration (and we’re not talking butterflies)

*First appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

As a region, the South is enjoying faster growth than any other, and politicos are taking note. The increased population growth means more electoral prowess, and whichever party controls this region will have a significant political advantage.

Although the South is typically seen as a safe-haven for Republicans, population growth among these states means more demographic diversity. With more people comes more viewpoints, and that (probably) means the southern color palette will feature various shades of purple. That alone will be interesting to watch.

Smart strategists pay attention to these migration patterns, and politicos don’t have a monopoly on this data market. The relocating of people from one state to another is big business – and big bucks – in the economic development realm.

Mississippi policymakers, here’s some information worth a noodle.

A century ago, 86 percent of Mississippians were born in Mississippi, according to information compiled by The New York Times. In 2012, less than three-fourths – or 72 percent – of residents were born in-state.

“About 60 percent of Mississippi’s domestic population growth since 1980 has been driven by migration from other states, and the share of state residents born in the state has never been lower,” according to The Times.

I’ll rephrase: Never in our state’s history have we seen a larger share of residents who were born outside our borders.

Depending on your perspective, this can be something of a wake-up call. It’s positive that Mississippi’s slow-as-molasses native population growth has been offset, at least to a certain extent, by domestic migration. That’s mighty nice of you folks who have relocated to the Hospitality State.

That being a Mississippian may become less about birthplace and more about residency can be another positive for our little slice of southern heaven. As the Hospitality State, we’ve got a duty – nay, a cultural obligation! – to welcome others into our ranks. We must be practical on issues like immigration, recognizing the economic, cultural, and social impact of those who help sustain the rural nature of Mississippi’s economy. We must likewise recognize that our state economy could use an infusion of top-tier talent – such as college students who wish to study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - regardless of where they were born.

Yet even these beliefs won’t be enough to sustain future growth. Migration, whether foreign or domestic, isn’t the sole economic savior we sometimes hear about on television. In fact, we don’t even need to look outside our state to spur an economic revival. But it’ll require that Mississippi do a better job retaining homegrown talent.

For years, we’ve heard about “brain drain,” but only in recent years have I begun to appreciate what this means for the future of our state. Mississippi is a net exporter of college graduates, which means our state’s best and brightest minds tend to leave – or at least, don’t enter the workforce – over time.

The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission characterizes this phenomenon as having a “detrimental effect on Mississippi’s economic development and quality of life,” citing the fact that college grads tend to have children who also graduate college; are less likely to use public sector services; and generate more tax revenues over a more sustained period of time.

In other words, these are the people we should be encouraging, pleading, begging (choose your word) to stay in Mississippi. These are the folks who can contribute to an economic renaissance, yet too many are leaving our borders for surrounding states. The grass is greener, they say.

The political rub, as I see it, is this: The state has made an investment in the education of these Mississippians, and, like a business, we ought to maximize our return-on-investment (ROI). The question is: How do we do that?

Honestly, I’m not sure. My experience with college-age kids is they aren’t enamored by lofty public sector-driven initiatives, nor do they seem to care what some wonk in Jackson thinks about their lifetime goals. “Working and raising a family in Mississippi” is an antiquated notion when you’re 18 and looking to explore the world.

We’ve got to reach them on their own turf, and that starts with a cultural shift in our own thinking. Mississippi isn’t the place it was 50 years ago, and we’re slowly beginning to take pride in ourselves. We are now getting second looks from companies looking for low taxes and skilled workers. We’re getting serious about education reforms, which means a more desirable environment in which to raise a family.

Those of us who have chosen to live and work here have a responsibility to seek out younger minds and encourage them to do the same. It’s like any political campaign in that someone you know and trust is more likely to sway your opinion than someone you see on television.

So let’s focus on our college graduates and send a unified message that Mississippi is a great place to return after they’ve explored the world. And heck, maybe we’ll eventually have to modify that bumper sticker I see everywhere: “American by birth. Mississippian by choice.”

Your worldview in 140 characters or less

*First appeared in the Aug. 13 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

You’re looking for news, any news. Who wrecked their car while texting and driving? What country just banned Justin Bieber from performing? What’s the latest craze in the cat video world? What elected leader had a major gaffe on live television?

If you’re like me, you’re part of the estimated 19 percent of online adults who find the answers to all these questions – and much, much more – on the social media site known as Twitter.

Twitter 101 consists of five parts: First, your name on the network is called a “handle” and is always preceded by the “at” sign. For instance, President Obama’s twitter handle is @BarackObama. Second, the people who subscribe to your account on Twitter are called your “followers.” In this case, @BarackObama has 44.9 million followers.

Third, the messages you send to your followers are called “tweets.” (Related: Your messages can be “retweeted,” which is sort of like forwarding an email you received without changing any text.) Fourth, and most importantly, your tweets cannot be longer than 140 characters. This can be challenging for the verbose among us. In literary terms, Twitter’s a playground for Hemingway but a curse for Faulkner.

The fifth and final part of this Twitter lesson is the hashtag, which I previously called the number sign. Typically, hashtags are used to note the subject matter of the tweet. Here’s what it looks like: “I’m explaining social media. #TwitterLesson”

Twitter serves as sort of a clearinghouse of information: You can get a lot of real-time information in not a lot of words and decide instantly which stories to further investigate. It’s a system that feeds my generational need for instant gratification and one that I suspect will have devastating impacts on the future. Alas.

Twitter is not only useful for news, but it’s also highly entertaining. Politicos, journalists, elected officials, and others use it to share their platforms, report on legislation, “live-tweet” (tweet about something in real-time) events, and, on occasion, argue amongst themselves.

If you’re not on Twitter, here’s a snapshot of what you’re missing.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) tweeted a picture of his visit to the set of The Hollars, the Miss.-based movie directed by John Krasinski of The Office fame.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (@TateReeves) had a little fun with his account during the Neshoba County Fair by using the hashtag “#TaterTots” in reference to his supporters.

In late March, House Speaker Philip Gunn (@PhilipGunnMS) showed Jones County a little love by tweeting a picture with a basketball signed by the Jones County Junior College men’s basketball team, which won the national championship. (#GoBobcats)

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Public Service Commissioner and rumored statewide candidate Brandon Presley (@BrandonPresley) invited his followers to a community center gathering to hear him sing country music. He’s really got this populism thing down to a science.

Jones County native and head of the Mississippi Democratic Party Rickey Cole (@RickeyCole) tweeted his observation that “the nasty little habit of petulance masquerading as ambition sooner or later leads to irrelevance.” Twitter’s as fine a place as any to be mysterious and philosophical, I should add.

Journalists thrive on Twitter, too. Sam Hall with the Clarion Ledger uses it to post links to his stories, to defend those stories,* and to engage in general commentary.

*The New York Times declared last week (via Twitter, of course) that no one wins a Twitter fight.

Sam (@SamRHall) recently posted a picture of a nasty Facebook message he had gotten from someone about his coverage of the Miss. Senate (#mssen) race. In understated sarcasm, Sam called it a “delightful message from a reader.”

Political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey (@MarshallRamsey) is more than amusing. He tweets about politics, weather, running, and other things, like the first day of school. From his Twitter account: “Planning for D-Day, also known as the First Day of School. Praying going on. Plus some swearing. And vomiting. Ramp about to drop.”

The network is a mashup of politics, news, jokes, snippy comments, and virtually anything else you want it to be. After all, no two Twitter accounts are the same. You control which news sources to follow; you control which accounts to read. In other words, you narrow your focus to the people and organizations you want to follow, not necessarily those you need to follow.

In the end, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it appears to be the wave of the future – for now. So, now that you’ve gotten a better handle on Twitter, why not take the next step and get an actual “handle”?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Neshoba County Fair (Political) Walk-Up Songs

*First appeared in the August 6 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

By now, the highlights of politickin’ at last week’s Neshoba County Fair have been written about, tweeted, Facebook(ed), or otherwise referenced by various media outlets. Undoubtedly you already know the gist of what was said – or, by the same token, what wasn’t – at Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty, and I’ve no interest in rehashing it.

Instead, I’d like to discuss the Fair in the context of baseball. Walk-up songs, to be exact. You see, I made a joke to fellow fair-goers last week that it would be funny if politicians, like baseball players, got to choose individualized music that would play as they walked onstage. This week, I’ve decided to choose that music for them.

I consulted a (self-proclaimed) walk-up song expert and learned the rules of choosing a song. According to him, it doesn’t have to be a good song, but it does have to be a song that’s relatively catchy in a brief amount of time – the time during which you “walk up” to the plate or, in this case, the microphone. Thus, songs were chosen in this manner and do not necessarily reflect my taste in music, although it has often been questioned by those close to me.

Walk-up song number one: I’m Going Home by Daughtry.

One of the major announcements made at the Fair came from my friend Senator Giles Ward, who told the crowd he would not be seeking re-election in 2015. I’ll miss Senator Ward, who is not only a strong conservative but also a heckuva nice guy. He told the crowd he’s looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, and, to borrow lyrics from the song, “I’m going home, back to the place where I belong, and where your love has always been enough for me.”

Lt. Governor Tate Reeves spoke on issues like balancing the state budget, reducing wasteful spending, and reforming education, saying his bold stances have saved taxpayer dollars but haven’t always made him popular in the halls of the Capitol. In other words, he told the crowd he has risen up to the challenge of his rivals, which also happens to be lyrics from our second walk-up song: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

I chuckled when listening to House Speaker Philip Gunn’s speech about Republican Party unity, the ups and downs of which he cleverly compared to a marriage. That’s why walk-up song number three is “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Everyone can see we’re together, Gunn told us (more or less), and conservatives fly just like birds of a feather. “High hopes we have for our future, and our goal is in sight,” he told us – that goal being implementing conservative policies in the Mississippi Legislature.

Takin’ care of business was the theme of State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s speech, and that’s why his walk-up song is Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s classic by the same name. Tax cheats and embezzlers, y’all better watch out for this guy. He’s taking care of business and working overtime.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch announced a new financial literacy initiative and said Mississippians needed to save more money to become financially stable. I interpreted her comments as encouraging the state’s citizenry to be fiscally responsible and pay our “Bills, Bills, Bills,” like the women of Destiny’s Child did in their mega-hit. That’s walk-up song number five.

Secretary of State Delbert (a.k.a. Englebert) Hosemann touted the success of the state’s voter ID law, a topic that naturally lends itself to The Who’s “Who Are You?” as walk-up song number six. Poll workers, sing it with me: “Who are you? Who, who, who, who? I really want to know.”

As the lone statewide-elected Democrat, Attorney General Jim Hood can really only have one walk-up song: “One is the Loneliest Number” by Three Dog Night.

Because I like puns, I’m assigning “Highway to the Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins as Highway Commissioner Dick Hall’s walk-up song for no reason other than both have the word “highway” in their title. (Also, I have a thing for cheesy music.)

Former Gov. William Winter (who is 91 years old, by the way) spoke at Neshoba. It was his 26th time to address the crowd, but his age was not a factor as he delivered a speech worthy of the elder statesman. He spoke about Mississippi’s history and its continual evolution. As Gov. Winter noted, “Times They Are A-Changin’,” and that’s why Bob Dylan is the man behind his walk-up song.

Promising to fight for Mississippi “because she’s worth fighting for,” U.S. Senator Thad Cochran deserves a walk-up song no less inspiring than Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” His speech was energetic and convinced me that yes, he will keep on fighting ‘til the end for our great state.

Finally, Gov. Bryant’s speech touched on many topics, including an anecdote about his conversation with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on the recent border crisis. Gov. Bryant offered assistance to Gov. Perry, but the Texas executive declined. But what if he hadn’t turned us down, I thought? “Send lawyers, guns, and money” could have been his response, and that’s why Gov. Bryant’s walk-up song is that catchy tune by Warren Zevon. (Okay, it’s not a perfect fit, but a great song nonetheless.)

This concludes my list of Neshoba County Fair walk-up songs. Here’s hoping fair organizers will read this column and consider adding a music feature to the political speaking. After all, every houseparty needs a little rock and roll.