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Legislators meet with community

NATCHEZ — Rep. Sam Mims said state legislators are making tough financial decisions much like those Mississippi families are facing.

Mims (R-McComb), and other local legislators, spoke to a crowd of local residents Monday at the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.

“People are working less, making less money, and it’s affecting the state budget,” Mims said.

Each legislator cited enormous difficulties in balancing the budget this year, but most noted that atougher times still lay ahead.

Sen. Bob Dearing (D-Natchez) said the state’s economic future looks cloudy mostly because Mississippi was among the last to feel the sting of the national recession and will likely be one of the last to recover.

“I’m optimistic,” Dearing said of the state’s economic future. “But the signs do not look good.”

He said due mostly to Mississippi’s lower population, the state is catching the impact of the national recession on its tail end.

This year’s state budget was reduced from last year’s $6 billion to $5.5 billion, Mims said. He added that $383 million came from stimulus money, which will not be available next year.

Mims said he is working with approximately 73 percent of his district’s usual budget.

State agencies are seeing cuts across the board and dealing with it in different ways, Dearing said. He said one piece of open legislation that has been passed allows agencies the option to furlough employees. Some schools across the state have eliminated some paid days for teachers.

In addition to Dearing and Mims, Reps. Robert Johnson III (D-Natchez) and Angela Cockerham (D-Magnolia) also attended the early morning panel discussion. Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) was not present.

Johnson said the gulf coast oil spill adds another drain on the state’s financial crisis. So far, $25 billion has been spent on the recovery. However, Johnson said Mississippi should not support the elimination of offshore drilling. Instead, officials should increase safety measures and concentrate on alternate energy very gradually.

“Our community is well-trained in (the oil business), Johnson said.

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can’t afford to do that,” he said about the speculation of halting offshore drilling.

Johnson also talked about improvements discussed at the recent legislative session. He said Adams County would receive money from bonds for transportation projects such as fixing roads, bridges and the railroad.

Legislators also answered questions from the audience.

A question about the appointment of city and county school board members stimulated a conversation about the board’s selection process. Dearing said the possibility of electing instead of appointing school board members passed on the Senate floor, but it has not yet become a law.

Johnson added that if school board members are elected in the future, the superintendent would still be appointed.

Another question suggested the creation of local medical residency programs that address the problem of “brain drain,” which occurs when the city’s brightest young people flee the state permanently to pursue careers elsewhere due to lack of opportunity.

Johnson and Mims both said that they are open to programs that would entice medical professionals back home. One such program has the state pay medical students’ tuition in exchange for a commitment to return home, Johnson said.

Natchez Inc. Chairwoman Sue Stedman also addressed the audience to update the public and legislators on the city- county- and private-sector-represented economic engine’s progress.

After becoming an official entity June 1, she said the group already has its bylaws written and has voted to recruit for the hiring of a director. She said Natchez Inc. will begin placing ads for the position June 15.

She also spoke about the 66-mile railway from Natchez to Brookhaven. Natchez Inc., sponsored a meeting May 26 to address possible changes with the economically important railroad. She said the meeting included representatives from across southwest Mississippi to brainstorm possible solutions.

Stedman also said constructing a levee at the port is one old idea the group has reinvigorated with discussion.

She also said the new economic engine provides a fresh opportunity for development.

“We have some problems,” Stedman said. “But they’re problems we can overcome.”

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