Opinion: State leaders sing small government but limit local leadership

Posted on Sep 11 2017 - 8:01am by Allen Coon

Small governance is sung as virtue among Mississippi state leaders.

Addressing supporters at the 2016 Neshoba County Fair, prospective gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves declared Republicans “are fighting for smaller government.”

Gov. Phil Bryant urged citizens to “just imagine a Mississippi of limited government” with his second inaugural speech, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn has claimed “that government should have a very limited and defined role.”

Hypocrites, all.

Mississippi leaders denounce national politics as “big government,” but many state policies subvert small government and constrain community control.

After Election Day, communities across the country acted as sanctuaries, granting undocumented immigrants a haven against federal persecution. Although not a sanctuary city, a Jackson city ordinance has prohibited police profiling of suspected undocumented immigrants since 2010, and many Mississippians, including some faculty and students at the University of Mississippi, supported such policies.

However, Senate Bill 2710, passed this March, bans local ordinances and college policies preventing law enforcement action against undocumented individuals, thus undermining local efforts to protect besieged community members.

The 2015 Charleston church massacre and the recent Charlottesville attacks reignited controversy within our state, with many Mississippians condemning Confederate monuments and a divisive state banner, the only state flag with a Confederate battle emblem.

Many cities and colleges acted, with several municipalities, including McComb, Biloxi, Jackson and Hattiesburg, and all eight public universities opting not to fly the Mississippi flag. Others have condemned Confederate statues as racist symbols. The University of Mississippi contextualized our Confederate monument – after NAACP leaders criticized administrative inaction – and last Tuesday, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors met with concerned citizens regarding the Confederate memorial guarding the Oxford Square.

Yet a 2004 state law prohibits removing, relocating, renaming or altering “local, municipal, or county owned” war monuments, parks, streets and schools, including historical markers honoring the Confederacy, and since the University of Mississippi removed the state flag almost two years ago, conservative lawmakers have threatened sanctions against schools and cities not flying the state banner.

Indeed, the university is no stranger to state overreach. In spring 2015, the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board of Trustees, the state governing body overseeing all eight public universities, terminated the contract of Chancellor Dan Jones.

Under his leadership, the university experienced unprecedented growth, with enrollment increasing roughly 26 percent, and donations reaching record highs.

What’s more, Jones demonstrated a distinct moral courage during his six-year tenure, pushing the university community to interrogate its relationship with the Old South and encouraging diversity initiatives that culminated in the creation of an office dedicated to diversity within the community.

However, the governor-appointed IHL Board expressed dubious concerns regarding contract management and fiscal efficiency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and, despite outrage and public concerns surrounding the IHL decision’s lack of transparency, proceeded to search for Jones’ replacement.

The Mississippi Constitution asserts that “all political power is vested in, and derived from, the people,” but state actions often limit local leadership and citizen sovereignty.

Conservative leaders preach small government principles but practice a system of governance that circumvents local political processes and deprives people of the power to bring change where it matters most: their own communities.

Allen Coon is a senior African-American studies and public policy leadership double major from Petal.