Mississippi is the fourth largest rural state in the country, with more than 51% of its population living in a rural area. Because such a large number of people live in rural areas, the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation believes it is extremely important rural communities make their voices heard in state and national politics. One way Mississippi’s rural communities are doing this is by sending their leaders to represent them in the state legislature in Jackson.
Senator Jenifer Branning of Philadelphia works for the constituents of Leake, Winston and Neshoba counties in the Mississippi Senate, and has done so since 2016. As Election Committee chair, Judiciary A Committee vice-chair, and an attorney and small business owner by trade, Branning is extremely familiar with the challenges Mississippi’s rural citizens and farmers face on a daily basis.
“I think it’s important to have people from our local communities working right here in the capital,” Branning says. “In my law practice, I represent a host of individuals, but a lot of them are farmers. I help them set up their businesses. I know firsthand the struggles they face, which has helped me in my role as senator. I am always on the lookout for regulations that would be unduly burdensome to our farmers.”
Representative Jason White of West provides for the legislative interests of Attala, Carroll, Holmes and Leake counties. As the Mississippi House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tempore and the Management Committee chair, White agrees with Branning, saying it is extremely important for rural communities to make their voices heard in the legislature.
“When I was elected for the first time eight years ago, there were 32 freshman in the House of Representatives,” White says. “At that time, a bunch of us were from rural areas, but that number has declined. It’s important for us to be here because the people in our rural communities and the agriculture industry are what makes our state operate. They are the people paying taxes and employing others. Those people need to be fully represented so their voices are heard on numerous different issues.”
Representative Trey Lamar of Senatobia, who represents the constituents of Lafayette and Tate counties in the Mississippi House of Representatives, knows rural Mississippi is the lifeblood of the state.
“Small towns make up Mississippi,” he says. “Rural Mississippi is Mississippi. There are great urban areas in Mississippi to live, but many of the people who reside in the Jackson-metro or Tupelo or the Coast, grew up in small town, Mississippi. We don’t need to forget that, and it’s important to make sure our small towns are growing.”
As a legislator in his third term, Lamar has big shoes to fill.
“My grandfather served in the same seat I serve in now from ’56 to ’64,” Lamar says. “I grew up knowing politics was in my family’s background. It was something that always intrigued me. I decided to run for my seat because I wanted to see my community and hometown thrive and prosper, and I knew there needed to be good leadership in Jackson for that to happen.”
Senator Albert Butler of Port Gibson has served Claiborne, Copiah, Hinds and Jefferson counties in the Mississippi Senate since 2010. He believes, like Lamar, it is his duty to look out for the well-being of his constituents, all of whom live in rural areas, and make sure their voices are heard.
“It’s important for the people in our rural areas to see their own take on leadership roles, like serving in the legislature,” Butler says. “It sets a positive example for them, and shows them they have true representation in Jackson.”
In the 2020 Legislative Session, legislators from rural areas focused on some specific legislation in hopes of helping rural communities and the agricultural industry. Branning focused on several bills that would affect how Mississippi’s forestry industry operates.
“We have such an abundance of natural resources in our forestry land,” she says. “From a government perspective, we need to do what we can to put our landowners in a good position to take their products to market and do well with them. When they are successful, we are all successful.”
Lamar, on the other hand, spends much of his time focusing on Mississippi’s tax policy as the Ways and Means Committee chair.
“Our plan is to take a comprehensive look at tax policy in the state of Mississippi,” Lamar says. “We have a patchwork of laws that have been put together over 100 plus years for different types of taxes. Some of those taxes are fair, while some of them are not. Every decision this committee makes will be with the intention of moving Mississippi’s private sector economy forward.”
For Butler and White, infrastructure was one of their top issues.
“The expansion of Highway 61 was originally part of the 1987 highway plan passed by the Mississippi Legislature,” says Butler, who serves as the Ethics Committee chair and Public Property Committee vice-chair. “Up to now, Highway 61 has not been completed. I am working with the Mississippi Transportation Commission and the legislature to get funds to complete that task.”
“For those of us who represent rural communities, infrastructure continues to be a top issue,” White says. “A large portion of the tax base for rural infrastructure comes from sales tax, and with online shopping taking that tax base, we are afraid our rural communities are going to suffer. So, one of my focuses this session was to capture some of that online sales tax and return it to our communities to continue providing for the infrastructure needs.”
None of the issues Mississippi’s rural communities and farmers face do not go unnoticed by the rural leaders representing those areas, and they hope to continue making their constituents’ voices heard.
“People who have not had direct contact with the agricultural community may not fully grasp the issues they are facing and how those issues really affect our farmers and rural citizens at home,” Branning says. “It’s our job to make those issues known and represent those people to the best of our ability.”