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Gunn tour stop proves beneficial

Friday’s “Mississippi Solutions – An Ideas Tour” stop in Brookhaven offered area residents a rare town-meeting-type forum to voice ideas, vent frustration constructively or simply express appreciation for being asked for their opinion in the first place.

     The packed house in the State Room was courteous throughout the nearly 90 minutes of public comments. The lack of button-pushing arguments or personal agendas was largely due to strict ground rules set upfront by meeting organizer, Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn.

     No speaker was to go over five minutes, and to make sure the rule was observed, Gunn’s policy director, Mandy Davis, kept a close watch on the clock and gave a 30-second warning.

     The time restriction was largely observed – Gunn’s team probably should have been minding the stopwatch for Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.

     Comments from the crowded room were fairly wide ranging. Lawrence County Superintendent of Education Tammy Fairburn summed it up pretty well: “We have a lot of things going on, from oil to sweet tea, but I’ve also heard a lot of things about our children.”

     Education issues did loom large at the meeting, which was designed to serve the entire Southwest Mississippi region. And it did, based on the array of communities represented and the diversity of the crowd.

     North Pike County School Board member Etta Taplin asked “that the legislature be passionate about education.”

     Fairburn and still other area educators went on to make it clear that the passion should be directed toward fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

     Another resident issued a plea for school choice and charter schools.

     Educators, on the other hand, voiced concerns over charter schools while urging strict regulations if they are established, which seems likely.

     On another issue that is sure to come up when the legislature meets, Alvin Hoover of King’s Daughters Medical Center urged approval of Medicaid expansion, calling state officials’ lack of interest in considering it “shameful.”

     In light of recent major industrial development in the northern half of the state, Bill Sones urged Mississippi officials not to forget the 1,000-acre supersite in Lincoln County.

     Pike County Economic Development District executive director Britt Herrin called for changing the state requirements that make Mississippi less competitive than Louisiana in developing the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale oil and gas field.

     “This could be a Toyota, plus an Ingalls, plus the Nissan plant,” Herrin said, urging assistance with infrastructure issues to accommodate the boom.

     James McDonald of Brookhaven asked for help with plans for growing tea plants in the region and for making Mississippi-grown sweet tea the state beverage. He pointed out the related benefit of agritourism – another topic that came up with several speakers.

     Noting she’d like to see a major focus on area economic development, Brookhaven Alderman Shirley Estes said, “People tend to lump Southwest Mississippi with Jackson, yet we are very different.”

     That difference was not lost on Gunn, who originally had only planned eight stops on his Ideas tour – Jackson, Greenwood, Hernando, Tupelo, Columbus, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Biloxi. The lack of a Southwest Mississippi location was pointed out to him early on, and he quickly added Brookhaven as the last meeting on the itinerary.

      By way of introduction Friday, Gunn emphasized his area connections and noted his grandparents were from Brookhaven and his mother was born here.

     As the allotted time for questions came to a final close, Gunn thanked the public for making sacrifices like missing work or paying for their own gasoline to make the trip.

     Sones thanked Gunn as well.

     “I’ve been here 35 years, and this is the first time a speaker of the house has been here,” he said.

     For those who didn’t get to attend Friday, I’ll ask: What do you think would help make Southwest Mississippi a better place?

     If you think your ideas are worth sharing, write us.

     Write to General Manager Rachel Eide at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602 or send e-mail to reide@dailyleader.com.