Lawmakers split vote on flag amendment

JACKSON — Two Pine Belt legislators believe the amendment that would deny tax breaks to Mississippi universities refusing to fly the Confederate-themed state flag will be cut from the final version of the bill.

Reps. Toby Barker and Brad Touchstone, both Hattiesburg Republicans, said they see the amendment being dropped from the bill after it is considered by the Senate, where it was sent Wednesday.

Barker said he voted against the amendment that the House passed by a  57-56 vote Wednesday to withhold proposed tax exemptions to public universities that refuse to fly the flag.

 “This amendment will not be in the final version of the bill,” the Southern Miss grad said. “We fund our universities because we want an educated workforce. We fund our universities because we want an educated populace. We don’t fund our universities because they don’t fly the state flag.”

Touchstone and Rep. Larry Byrd, R-Petal, however, said universities should fly the state flag.

“Regardless what design is on the flag, institutions supported by state tax dollars should be required to fly the state flag,” Touchstone said. “It should not be any different from public schools in the state that are required to fly the flag. Institutions of higher learning are supported by state tax dollars and should fall under the same guidelines.”

Byrd said his position on flying the state flag has not changed.

“I believe the state flag belongs to the people and not the Legislature,” he said. “When the majority is polled, we should abide by those results. I am not opposed to changing the flag, but I don’t think the Legislature should be involved in making the change.”

All eight of Mississippi's public universities have stopped flying the flag because it prominently features the Confederate battle emblem, and that has angered supporters of the banner.

However, a top lawmaker — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus — said the flag provision is likely to disappear from the final version of the bill in the next few weeks. Senate Bill 2509 would provide tax exemptions for Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, but it could be expanded to add other schools.

Republican Rep. William Shirley of Quitman wrote the flag amendment and said universities should fly the state symbol, whatever it is, if they take state money.

"It has nothing to do with the current design at all," said Shirley, who attended a rally at the Capitol in 2016 to support the current flag.

Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Jackson said forcing universities to fly the flag will hurt academic and athletic recruiting.

"Let's stop hindering the future of Mississippi," Bell told House colleagues. "This takes us back. I ask that you not take us back."

Mississippi is the last state with a flag that that includes the Confederate symbol — a field of red, topped by a tilted blue cross dotted by 13 white stars. The flag, in use since 1894, has been a source of division for years. Voters chose to keep the design in 2001, but only after a series of public hearings that devolved into shouting matches over a symbol that supporters see as a representation of history and heritage, and that critics see as a reminder of slavery and segregation.

The University of Southern Mississippi stopped flying the state flag on campus in October 2015.

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, publicly called for changing the flag in 2015, but bills have failed because Gunn said there is no consensus in the Republican-majority House.

GOP Gov. Phil Bryant has said repeatedly that if the flag design is to be reconsidered, it should be done by voters and not by lawmakers or courts.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday in New Orleans over whether to revive a flag lawsuit. The attorney who filed the suit, Carlos Moore, argues the flag portrays him and other African-American residents of Mississippi as second-class citizens. A federal district judge Mississippi ruled in September that Moore lacked legal standing to file the suit, but Moore is asking the appeals court to reverse that decision and order a trial on the merits of his arguments.

Staff writer Buster Wolfe contributed to this report.