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Bryant touts improved Mississippi economy; seeks training funds, special-needs scholarships

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi has not reached its full potential, but the state is in its best financial condition in recent history, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said Wednesday during his State of the State address.

"We are not yet where we need to be to move to a new level, but we are moving ahead and should not be timid about recognizing the good things in Mississippi," Bryant told legislators, statewide elected officials and judges in a packed House chamber in the state Capitol. "Others will certainly revel in the bad. But as for me, I am proud of my Mississippi."

Bryant did not mention Mississippi's perennial status as one of the poorest states in the nation with some of the highest rates of obesity and heart disease and some of the lowest rankings in education.

Instead, he touted the state's decreasing unemployment rate and said the low cost of living makes Mississippi an affordable place to live.

"I will admit to being an eternal optimist who believes Mississippi's best days lie ahead and are within our grasp," Bryant said during the 35-minute speech, which was interrupted several times by applause.

Highlights of the speech:

— Bryant asked legislators to move $50 million into a workforce training fund. He said no new taxes would be required because money would transfer from the state unemployment trust fund, where it is sitting unused.

— He requested $3 million to start a Mississippi Works Scholarship Fund for community college students. "As a blue-collar kid, I worked my way through junior college, but today's conditions are different and tuition is more challenging," he said.

— Bryant asked legislators to approve scholarships for special-needs students to attend the school of their parents' choice, including private schools. He also said charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate free of many regulations faced by other public schools, will "offer hope to those children trapped in failing school districts." Two charter schools are being developed in the state.

— Bryant asked legislators to approve his proposed tax cut for low- to moderate-income earners. "I will ask you to give a raise to the people who need it most: the working people of Mississippi," Bryant said, and legislators responded with tepid applause. Under his plan, a family of four with a household income of $52,000 would receive a $921-a-year tax credit, and a single person with an income of $14,590 would receive a credit of $75, he said. The tax breaks would be available only in years when state revenue grows by at least 3 percent.

— He called on tighter controls for state contracts. He said Mississippi has faced "man-made challenges" at the Department of Corrections, but did not mention the indictment of former state Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and a businessman, Cecil McCrory, on federal corruption charges tied to prison-system contracts. Epps and McCrory have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial in April. "Mississippi will not tolerate a 19th century correctional system," Bryant said. "Rest assured, change is on the way."

— Bryant requested an additional $5.1 million for tourism promotion, and introduced country singer Marty Stuart as a tourism ambassador for his native state. Stuart, noted for his spiky gray hairdo, waved from the spectators' gallery. The introduction also prompted one of the few impromptu lines from Bryant, who has his own gray mane. "And they talk about MY hair," Bryant deadpanned.

— Bryant called on the Legislature to pay $30 million toward a $150 million expansion of the Blair E. Batson children's hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The balance would come from private donations.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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