JACKSON – If second-term Gov. Phil Bryant has his way, 2018 could be a busy year for Mississippi voters.
The Republican governor voiced support earlier this week for placing on the ballot for voters to decide:
- Whether to pay additional taxes (presumably on gasoline and other items) to raise revenue for transportation needs on the state and local level.
- Whether to change the Mississippi flag, which has the controversial Confederate battle emblem as part of its design.
Bryant has for more than a year advocated for a second statewide vote on whether the flag should be changed. In 2001, Mississippians voted overwhelmingly to keep the current flag, first adopted in the 1890s, instead of adopt a new design that did not contain the Confederate emblem.
In recent years, there has been calls for the Legislature to change the state flag. All eight public universities have stopped flying the flag, as well as many local school districts and multiple county and municipal governments.
And in recent weeks, Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, has said he will file legislation in the 2018 session calling on a vote on whether to increase taxes to pay for transportation needs. While most state leaders concede the Mississippi Department of Transportation needs additional funds for roads and bridges, a consensus has yet to be reached on how to generate the additional funds.
At the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob political speakings earlier this week, Bryant said of Kirby’s plan for a direct vote, “I like that...I have always liked direct democracy. If the people want to raise taxes, let’s give them the opportunity” to vote on it.
The governor went on to reiterate his support for putting the proposed change to the state flag on the ballot.
The influential MEC has advocated for raising additional revenue for transportation needs and played a key role in the campaign to change the flag in 2001.
At the Hobnob earlier this week at the Mississippi Coliseum, the MEC had a large United States flag hanging down from behind the stage.
One of the Hobnob speakers, Andy Taggart, former chief of staff to the late Kirk Fordice, pointed to the American flag and said it would be nice to be able to display a new state flag in such a manner.
He advocated for changing the flag before the end of the current year – which is the 200th year of Mississippi’s statehood – “to have a flag we can all rally behind” as part of the bicentennial celebration.
Despite Taggart’s strong stance, there is no likelihood that the governor will call a special session this year to change the flag or put the issue on the ballot.
A poll last month conducted by Mississippi-based Chism Strategies found that 49 percent oppose changing the flag while 41 percent support the adoption of a new state flag.
The poll narrative said it would be a mistake for those advocating for a new flag to believe they could obtain one through a statewide referendum.
“Opponents of a new state flag feel much more strongly than do new flag advocates. Moreover, this flag debate would probably get high-jacked by the far right as a rallying cry in the culture wars and the final vote would not reflect the merits of a new flag,” the narrative stated.
And in the Legislature, despite House Speaker Philip Gunn voicing support for changing the flag, most members of the Republican majority oppose such an effort.
There was a strong, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort during the 2017 session to try to make it a condition of the universities receiving state funding to display the state banner.
Opponents of the current flag say the Confederate battle cross is a symbol of racism and hate, while many supporters of the banner say it is a symbol of the state’s heritage.