- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2023

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus will push this year to revive an initiative process, ease the restoration of voting rights for former inmates, expand Medicaid, provide oversight for welfare spending and ensure that all parts of the state have access to high-speed internet and safe drinking water, the group’s chairwoman said Wednesday.

“We want to improve the quality of life for everyday Mississippians,” Sen. Angela Turner Ford said as she was backed by other caucus members during a Capitol news conference.

The caucus has 14 members in the 52-person Senate and 39 in the 122-person House, with one vacant seat in a majority-Black House district. Most of the caucus members are Democrats, and Republicans hold a wide majority in both chambers.

Several Mississippi hospitals are struggling to remain open because of financial problems. Turner Ford, a Democrat from West Point, said expanding Medicaid would bring money into the health care system.

“Mississippi ranks last or close to last in almost every leading health outcome,” she said. “That is not good.”

Mississippi is among 11 states that have not expanded Medicaid to people who work in low-wage jobs that don’t provide health insurance. Expansion is an option under the health care overhaul signed into law in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama in 2010. Gov. Tate Reeves and many other Republican officials in Mississippi say they don’t want to put more people on a government-funded program.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in May 2021 that the state’s initiative process, which allowed people to petition to put issues on the ballot, was invalid. The process was added to the state constitution in the 1990s, requiring petitioners to gather one-fifth of signatures from each congressional district. Mississippi had five congressional districts at the time, but it dropped to four districts after the 2000 Census. Language dealing with the initiative process was never updated.

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans, said last week that they want to revive an initiative process. The House and Senate need to agree on how many signatures would be required.

Mississippi strips voting rights from people convicted of certain felonies, including forgery, arson and bigamy. Black Caucus members and other Democratic lawmakers have tried for years to automatically restore voting rights after people convicted of disenfranchising crimes have finished serving their sentences. To regain voting rights in Mississippi now, a person must receive a governor’s pardon or must win permission from two-thirds of the state House and Senate. Legislators have restored the rights to only a few people in the past several years.

Turner Ford said Wednesday that the Black Caucus wants greater accountability about how the Mississippi Department of Human Services spends money that is intended to help some of the neediest people in the U.S. A former director of the department is among the people who have pleaded guilty to misspending money through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

State Auditor Shad White, a Republican, told reporters at a school near Jackson on Wednesday that the state has failed to track the results of how TANF recipients are affected by the way the state spends that money.

“We have to do a better job as a country of asking state agencies that are handling welfare dollars to tell us how many people are being helped with these dollars and how are they being helped,” White said.

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