- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Capitol is not the real world, and that can be easy to forget during a legislative session.

Unless there’s an alternate universe neatly hidden from most people, the real world doesn’t have the plethora of freebies that are readily available at the statehouse.

Almost every morning during a 90-day session, groups set up tables in the first floor rotunda near the main public entrance at the center of the building. Universities, mental health advocates, museums, tourism groups - there’s a rotating cast of characters with ideas to pitch and services to promote.

What better way to grab lawmakers’ attention than by luring them to your table with a free chicken biscuit, a chocolate-dipped strawberry or a big blueberry muffin? Or, even with a lunch buffet that makes the whole rotunda smell like gravy?

Often, the entertainment is free. The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science brought a big snake to the Capitol this year. Folks couldn’t take the snake home, of course, but they got to pose with it for free (scary!) photos to amaze their friends and family.

There are trinkets aplenty. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County shows up every session with bright, flashing NASA lapel pins and astronaut toys made of squeezable foam. Railroad companies hand out calendars with lovely photos of locomotives traveling through the countryside.

Some of the freebies are more valuable. Last week, medical professionals offered a wide range of free health screenings at the Capitol, including those for blood pressure, cholesterol and vision.

The freebies are not limited to lawmakers. They are generally available to anyone who walks up, including Capitol staffers, lobbyists, journalists and random people visiting the building.

There are also plenty of freebies available at the invitation-only events for lawmakers, including steak dinners with lobbyists and a long list of receptions that offer beer, wine and cocktails for those who choose to partake. (Yes, there are plenty of teetotalers in the Legislature, in case their deacons are reading this.)

Mississippi is not alone in this culture of freebies for the powerful and privileged. This is common in lots of statehouses, and there’s reason to believe that some elected officials in Washington might be wined and dine from time to time.

Most of the freebies and the hospitality are legal, and it’s reasonable to think that a grown-up legislator can maintain his or her integrity while eating a complimentary sandwich. The challenge is to keep in touch with how people are living their lives back at home, because it’s generally pretty different from life at the Capitol.

Despite the type of “only positive Mississippi spoken here” sloganeering that has been popular among some politicians for decades, this has long been one of the poorest states in the union. It remains so, even with economic advances.

The world of freebies must be completely foreign to workers with some of the lowest-paid and most thankless jobs in state government - for example, those who earn only a smidge above minimum wage as direct care workers in mental health facilities.

The free medical tests given at the Capitol last week are just the kind of thing some people outside the building might need.

Politicians like to talk about how folks sit down at the kitchen table and decide how spend their own hard-earned money. People living paycheck-to-paycheck probably can’t stretch their grocery budget by loading up on all-you-can-eat shrimp at a reception. It’s something to remember in the land of freebies.

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Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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