Delbert Hosemann

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann makes a point during his presentation Tuesday to a joint luncheon meeting of the Greenwood Rotary and Exchange clubs.

Delbert Hosemann considers himself a “numbers guy.” There’s one number Mississippi’s lieutenant governor says he is homing in on: the state’s labor participation rate.

Based on most recent figures, according to Hosemann, only 53% of Mississippians between the ages of 18 and 64 are employed, down from 55% before the pandemic.

“That is unsustainable in Mississippi,” he told a joint luncheon meeting Tuesday of the Greenwood Rotary and Exchange clubs. “Everything that we do from this day forward is going to be to raise the labor participation rate.”

Hosemann, after serving three terms as secretary of state, is in his first year as lieutenant governor, whose duties include presiding over the Senate.

Even though Mississippi is showing signs of pulling out of the economic slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hosemann said, the state’s low labor participation rate was a concern before the coronavirus arrived and has only gotten worse since.

Mississippi’s rate runs about 10 percentage points behind the national average, he said.

“Everything we do needs to make sure that people are working. When they’re working, they’re not in trouble, they’re not as sick, ... . We have so many other benefits that go with that.”

One workforce initiative, enacted this year, retooled the board that oversees the state’s technical training. The 43-member board has been scaled down to seven and given the responsibility of hiring a “workforce czar” to unify Mississippi’s fractured and sometimes overlapping system of developing job-related skills in its people,  Hosemann said.

“It doesn’t do any good to spend a whole lot of money on it and buy a whole lot of equipment to train two people when you could be training a hundred.”

Next week, a legislative panel will hold its second hearing on whether to expand year-round schooling, in which students attend school for nine weeks, followed by a three-week break, and follow that same schedule all year long. Year-round schooling is supposed to avoid the so-called “summer slide,” in which students during the long summer break fail to retain all that they had learned during the previous academic year.

The only Mississippi public school district where year-round schooling has been tried so far is Corinth. Four years into the experiment, the results have been good, Hosemann said: “Their ACT scores exploded upwards. Their participation exploded upwards. Their graduation rate went up.”

In response to the pandemic, the state Legislature allocated, out of the $1.25 billion it received in federal coronavirus relief funding,

$200 million to help public schools improve their distance-learning efforts. The money was used to equip all students with a Chromebook or iPad and address the lack of high-speed internet access for students in some school districts.

The shift to distance learning was a necessary accommodation to the highly contagious virus, said Hosemann, who contracted COVID-19 himself earlier this year. The vast majority of students, however, want to return to in-person instruction, according to the informal polling Hosemann said he has done.

“Distance learning is a supplement to education,” he said. “It is not the answer. We need our kids back in front of teachers. As soon as we can get them there, we’re going to be better off.”

Hosemann touched on several other issues in his remarks. Among them were:

nState flag: The Republican lieutenant governor said he insisted during conversations with the House leadership that any proposed new flag be put to a public vote and include the words “In God We Trust.”

Both conditions were part of the bill lawmakers enacted this summer to retire the 1894 flag and its Confederate battle emblem, and appoint a commission to recommend a replacement. The recommended flag, which is commonly called the “magnolia flag” because of the state flower at its center, will be on the general election ballot for an up-or-down vote Nov. 3. Hosemann said he will vote for it. “I think it represents us well. The more you see it, I think, the more it kind of grows on you.”

nFlooding lawsuits: Hosemann said he is optimistic that the litigation he initiated as secretary of state will be successful in forcing the federal government to compensate Mississippi landowners for constant flooding on their land as a result of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ water-control projects along the Mississippi River that date back to the 1960s. “They made Mississippi a reservoir, and I want to get paid for it,” he said. Hosemann said he believes a separate lawsuit will also be successful to recapture losses to the state’s seafood industry caused by the Corps’ discharge in 2019 of trillions of gallons of river water into the Gulf of Mexico to reduce flooding upstream.

• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com

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