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The Mississippi Legislature convened for the 132nd time at noon Tuesday with money matters at the forefront of its agenda.
Complete tax reform, a shift in public education funding and a tightening of overall state spending are issues expected to headline the session, scheduled to last until April 2.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn gaveled in their respective legislative bodies.
Gunn drew cheers and applause as he noted this year marks the 200th anniversary of Mississippi becoming a state.
Here are several agenda items to watch this session:
Lawmakers met several times this off-season with representatives from Washington-based Tax Foundation, asking for recommendations on rewriting the state’s tax code. The special panel of officials – 13 Republicans, five Democrats and a governor’s appointee – narrowed their focus this fall on several specific changes: imposing new sales taxes on certain goods and services, accelerating scheduled franchise tax cuts, eliminating taxes on stocks and bonds and simplifying the tax code for married couples.
A number of Mississippi lawmakers have promised to introduce legislation this session that would create an Internet sales tax. Those moves come despite the Tax Foundation representatives’ advice to hold off until Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court rules on such a policy.
Public education funding
Last summer, the legislative leadership commissioned New Jersey-based advocacy group EdBuild to rewrite Mississippi’s public education funding formula. In several meetings with a panel of lawmakers, EdBuild representatives said they believe in a “student-based formula,” or one that determines a base student cost for a regular student then adds additional funds for students with certain needs or circumstances.
In previous work with the Georgia Legislature, EdBuild’s team recommended adding $258 million to that state’s education budget and, as funds were available, an additional $209 million. It also adopted a formula based on three components: the student-based funding, weighted student characteristics and categorical grants, or funds for districts to pay fixed administrative costs.
Mississippi lawmakers will take whatever funding formula EdBuild proposes and determine whether to implement it in full or part.
Widespread budget cuts
The legislative leadership in early December released their first fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, which would slash general fund spending by 3 percent. Under the Legislature’s proposal, which will be used as a template for appropriations committees as they determine how much to dole out to state agencies, nearly every general fund agency or department would receive less money than it did in the current fiscal year. The sole exception would be K-12 general education programs, which would see an 8 percent increase from this fiscal year.
Legislative leaders created working groups in the early summer to assess the budgets – line by line, in many cases – of 13 state agencies. The objective, leaders said, was to find inefficiencies and wasteful spending. Those were identified in some cases, and the initial budget proposal reflected the new information gathered during the working groups’ investigations.
Agency heads and lobbyists will have plenty of time to plead their cases for more money. But leaders have continually said they will be very strict with the money they spend.
Special fund patchwork
One of the most pressing orders of business during the 2017 session will be resolving budget problems caused by a 2016 law that swept tens of millions of dollars of special funds into the general fund.
The law was initially slated to send $184 million in special funds into the general fund and eliminate inter-agency transfers, such as state agencies charging other agencies for rent, technological assistance and phone bills.
But Attorney General Jim Hood ruled that several of the scheduled special fund sweeps could not legally occur, delaying several state services and tying up millions of dollars.
Gov. Phil Bryant created a special task force to determine specific problems caused by the law, and until lawmakers introduce and pass technical amendments to the law, the problems will persist. One of the most glaring issues with the law is confusion about funding for the state’s renowned trauma care system, which might require unanticipated spending from the Department of Health to stay afloat this fiscal year.
BP settlement spending
In what could be a bitter fight this session, lawmakers need to determine how to spend $750 million in settlement funds from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The state currently holds a $109 million check – the first of several that will total $750 million over the next 16 years. Gulf Coast lawmakers from both political parties want the majority of the settlement checks to remain on the Coast, which was directly affected by the spill.
But many officials in other parts of the state see the settlement checks as a way to fund much-needed projects, like repair of roads and bridges or implementation of public education projects. The potential legislative voting numbers overwhelmingly stack up against the Coastal lawmakers. In the House, 16 of 122 representatives are from the three Coast counties. In the Senate, seven of 52 senators are from the Coast counties.
Bryant, Reeves and Gunn say they favor keeping the majority of the funds on the Coast. It will be interesting to see if the rank and file members fall in line with the leadership.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann worked for more than two years on a comprehensive election reform package for the 2016 session, only to have the core tenants killed shortly before final passage. The reform would have allowed early voting, online registration, stricter campaign finance regulations, the barring of voting across political lines in runoffs after primaries and more comprehensive training of poll workers.
The package is expected to be reintroduced this session, with lawmakers promising to focus more closely on it.
Roads and bridges
After a $375 million plan developed by the Mississippi Economic Council died last session, several lawmakers toured some of the state’s crumbling roads and bridges this summer and fall with officials from the Department of Transportation. The issue, which is constantly mentioned by legislators and other state officials, is expected to be brought up by several lawmakers this year.
It is unclear exactly how much the transportation department would need to complete every scheduled repair or improvement, but the $375 million proposed last year by the economic council wouldn’t be sufficient, Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert has said. Lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, have indicated the issue should be a top priority.
Mississippi is the last state in the country with a Confederate battle emblem on its state flag. After the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church massacre, other states moved quickly to distance themselves from the symbol. In the 2016 session, 19 bills that dealt with the state flag died in committee, even after Gunn publicly called for a change. Not all would have eliminated the flag.
Mississippi is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and the Mississippi Economic Council, which led an unsuccessful campaign in 2001 to remove the state flag, has released a bicentennial banner. The banner already is being flown in lieu of the state flag by several of the largest companies operating in Mississippi. Momentum appears to be growing for a conversation about the banner being a potential replacement for the state flag.
Gunn has been meeting with several lawmakers about the flag, and the issue is expected to be discussed during the session.