JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is leaving office Tuesday after serving his limit of two terms. The Republican said he believes the state’s economy is stronger, vulnerable children are better protected and students are showing stronger academic performance.
“We still have a lot of problems, but the indicators of how the economy of jobs and education and what we’re doing with foster children – they’re better than they were eight years ago,” Bryant said. “And that’s all any governor can truly hope for, is to is to be able to say, ‘Are we leaving Mississippi better off than it was eight years ago?’”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Bryant also said a recent outburst of violence in Mississippi prisons is not something he would have wanted as part of his legacy. Five inmates were killed, an undisclosed number were injured and facilities at the State Penitentiary at Parchman were so damaged that the state set an emergency contract to move 375 inmates to a private prison nearby.
“This is one of the last problems that I will deal with. and we will fix it,” Bryant, 65, said in his Capitol office.
Bryant’s predecessor as governor, Republican Haley Barbour, pardoned nearly 200 people as he finished his second term in 2012. People protesting prison conditions last week called on Bryant to release some nonviolent inmates to ease prison crowding.
Bryant said he will not issue any pardons or commute any sentences.
Bryant started his career as a deputy sheriff in the 1970s. He said he does not think of inmates as victims, even amid the recent prison violence.
“I don’t associate victimhood with them,” Bryant said. “The victims are the people that they perpetrated the crime upon – the poor men and women that are out in society, whose homes were broken into, who were robbed, who were raped, who were beaten.”
Bryant had served in the state House, as state auditor and as lieutenant governor before winning the governor’s race in 2011. His successor as governor is Republican Tate Reeves, who served the past two terms as lieutenant governor.
Critics point out that Mississippi has lost population while Bryant has been in office and that a federal judge will intervene because the state is doing too little to help people outside the confinement of mental hospitals.
The state’s foster care system remains enmeshed in a long-running lawsuit over the quality of services, but the state has increased adoptions and decreased the number of children in foster care.
Mississippi remains among the poorest states in the U.S. Bryant said he’s proud that employment is up, state tax collections are stronger and the state’s rainy day fund has more than $550 million.
Bryant said that when he became governor in 2012, he saw challenges in trying to improve the schools.
“It seemed that it was just in this malaise, that public education was just stumbling,” Bryant said.
Bryant signed a law in 2013 that led to the state hiring more people to help children learn to read. The goal was to ensure students can read on the proper level before moving from third grade to fourth. He said about 52% of third graders were reading at the proper grade level when he became governor, and that’s up to about 85% now.
Mississippi’s high school graduation rate was 74.5% for the 2012-13 year, below the national average. By 2017-18, Mississippi reached its highest-ever graduation rate of 84%, which matched the national rate.
Bryant drew harsh criticism in 2016 when he signed a law that said merchants and government officials could cite their own religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples. The law protects three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, sex should only take place in such a marriage, and a person’s gender is determined at birth and cannot be altered.
Bryant said he’s proud of the law and believes it was “so misunderstood.”
“I don’t think any form of government ought to have a power to order a citizen to do something that is against their religious freedoms and rights,” he said Wednesday.
The law was temporarily blocked after gay-rights advocates sued the state, but a federal appeals court later allowed the law to take effect after it found that plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they were harmed. In early 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court let the appeals court’s decision stand, and the law remains in effect.
Bryant signed laws to shorten the time abortion is available in Mississippi. Two of those are still blocked amid federal court challenges. One would ban abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy and one at about six weeks.
“This is the death of an innocent child in a very violent manner,” Bryant said of abortion. “And so, yeah, I try to do everything I can to make this a safe place for unborn children.”
Bryant repeated what he has said often – that he will not run for another office. He and his wife, Deborah, are moving to a new home in Copiah County. He said he will campaign for President Donald Trump’s reelection but does not have a long-term plan for a job.
“I just truly believe that you’re called in life to do things,” Bryant said. “I’m going to get our house in order and get moved in and see what I have an opportunity to do. I hope I don’t have to go to Washington. I don’t want to go to Washington. But … I will know when that job comes along that that’s the thing I want to do.”