Legislators: Our opinions differ but we work together

Published 6:21 pm Monday, January 29, 2024

NATCHEZ — Much was discussed over breakfast on Monday, including education, transportation, healthcare, taxes, roads and drainage.

Nearly 70 people, including two state representatives, attended the Natchez Adams County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Breakfast at the Natchez Grand Hotel.

While all of the legislators who represent Adams County were invited, District 94 House Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, and District 97 House Rep. Sam Mims V, R-McComb, were the only ones who could attend.

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Monday’s moderator Chandler Russ, who is the Executive Director of Natchez Inc., said Johnson and Mims work together across party lines to serve the best interests of Adams County.

“We look forward to continuing working with our senior delegation. They’ve always, always had Natchez’s best interests at heart,” Russ said.

However, their opinions on political issues differ.

On one hand, Mims said the state should further cut back on income taxes to give Mississippians a break after inflation. Johnson, however, said that should come second to addressing the dire situation of roads and highways and the needs of grossly underpaid public workers participating in a shaky retirement system.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Johnson said, adding, “The money has to come from somewhere.”

Johnson began Monday’s discussion by answering a question from Adams County Board of Supervisors President Kevin Wilson.

Wilson said every resident in the county pays $1 per phone line and 70 cents of that dollar pays for local 911 service. The other 30 cents is added to the growing state coffers, Wilson said.

Two years ago, there was $68 million in that state fund. Now it’s probably closer to $80 million, he said.

“My question is, what is the Legislature going to do about it?” Wilson said. “If you’re not going to use it, send it back to the county. We’re over here trying to cut budgets to pay expenses, and the last thing we want to do is raise anyone’s taxes.”

Johnson said the fund is an issue nationwide. The federal guideline says the fund proceeds should be used for public safety issues.

“There is no public safety issue statewide that should take $80 million,” he said. “It should be given back to the county.”

Mims said concerns such as high interest rates and inflation are being handed down to Mississippians from the nation’s capital and that it’s his responsibility as a lawmaker to help pass
“solid legislation and policies” to appropriately manage public funds.

“The state economy is doing very well. We have the lowest unemployment that we’ve had in decades at about 3.7 percent. Our rainy-day account is funded at about $750 million and our revenue continues to increase month over month,” Mims said. “But this is my 21st year of serving in the Legislature and I’ve never seen more of a disconnect between what is happening in Mississippi with what is happening in D.C.”

Johnson said he is working to ensure that Adams County and the rest of Southwest Mississippi don’t get overlooked when it comes to making economic development investments.

Adams County has all of the things needed to attract new industry but lacks “attention” from state leaders, he said.

“We have to raise our voices to make sure that people understand we’re here,” Johnson said. “If you continue not to invest in an area you choke it. It’s like watering a plant. If you don’t water it, it will die. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Johnson said his goal in the Legislature is to direct the millions the state has in its coffers back to areas that need it for everyday public safety, infrastructure, public education, and healthcare.

“My job as a legislator, when we’re sitting on over $3 billion in surplus funds, is to make sure that the things that make your life work are taken care of. Those are the things you’ve elected me to take care of,” he said.

As for local concerns, leaders specifically mentioned needing funds for the airport, Bellwood Levee, lighting on the Mississippi River bridge, the U.S. Colored Troops Monument, and drainage projects — Concord and West Stiers Lane drainage projects particularly.

Despite obvious differences, the two representatives agreed on addressing the issues mentioned by their constituents, particularly when it comes to infrastructure and drainage.

“You may have to choose between lights on the bridge or the Colored Troops monument but I think you’ll get something,” Johnson said in a bantering manner.

“Rep. Johnson and I disagree on several issues, but we generally get along and work together very well to address the needs of Southwest Mississippi,” Mims said. “We work really hard for Southwest Mississippi and for Natchez-Adams County.”

The representatives were also asked about their relationship with the two newest legislators representing Adams County, District 38 Sen. Gary Brumfield, D-Magnolia, and Sen. Albert Butler, D-Port Gibson. Butler previously represented District 36 and now takes the seat formerly occupied by Melanie Sojourner in the new District 37 created after redistricting.

“They defer to us,” Johnson said of the senators. “They’ve been very cooperative and interested in what we have to say about the area.”

Mims added, “Our job is also about relationships and we have to build relationships on every side of the aisle, in the House and Senate.”