Looking back on the eight-year tenure of Phil Bryant as Mississippi’s governor, the evaluation is mixed, as it probably is with anyone who holds public office for very long.
The Republican, who leaves office Tuesday, has been free of personal scandal. That is saying something for an official who has been in the public eye for not just the last eight years but the last 28, starting with his election to the state House of Representatives in 1991, followed by 11 years as state auditor and four as lieutenant governor.
He has left the state treasury in good shape, with $550 million accumulated in a “rainy day fund” to help the state weather any future downturns.
He has steadfastly supported openness in government, has defended unequivocally the right to life of the unborn, has curtailed to a small degree the practice of social promotion in public education, and has landed some major economic development projects, although the cost of at least one of them, Continental Tire, will be debated for years to come.
There have also been, however, some major disappointments and failures of leadership, especially when Bryant has put politics above policy.
He is heavily responsible for Mississippi remaining one of only 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid to cover the working poor. He chose, because of the proposed expansion’s association with Democratic former President Barack Obama, to look a gift horse in the mouth that would have shored up the state’s struggling rural hospitals, juiced the economy and assisted families struggling with medical care.
He also let the state’s roads and bridges deteriorate because of a no-tax-increase ideology. Instead of advocating the logical course of raising the fuel tax, which hasn’t been adjusted since 1987, to pay for long-neglected maintenance and repair of Mississippi’s transportation infrastructure, Bryant flipped to becoming a supporter of a state lottery — an inefficient, inadequate and morally suspect way to raise the money.
Although it’s true that Mississippi’s unemployment rate has improved dramatically during Bryant’s tenure, from 9.4% the month before he moved into the Governor’s Mansion to 5.5% today, it’s also true that Mississippi has had one of the nation’s most sluggish economic recoveries from the Great Recession. Mississippi is also one of only a few states losing population — which is probably a much better gauge of the economic health of our state than is the jobless rate.
And even though Bryant personally has been free of scandal, not all of his appointments have been. He retained a corrections commissioner, Chris Epps, who was soliciting kickbacks from almost everyone who did business with the state’s prisons, and is now in prison himself. Bryant replaced Epps with two commissioners who either didn’t have the relevant experience or didn’t have the ability to run the Mississippi Department of Corrections. As a result, the departing governor has helped create a prison system that’s more dangerous, inhumane and dilapidated than the one he inherited.
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Bryant raised the question whether he is leaving Mississippi better off than it was eight years ago. In some ways, the answer is yes, but in more ways, it would have to be no.
The original version of this editorial was incorrect on how long Phil Bryant served as lieutenant governor.