Celebrating Mississippi was the main message from top lawmakers on the first day of the Legislature’s 132nd session, which focused on the state’s bicentennial.
Two of those Republican leaders, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, reflected on the anniversary and said they were excited about the state’s future. Mississippi was officially granted statehood on Dec. 10, 1817.
“We are able to shape the future of this state. We have been entrusted with a great responsibility,” Gunn, from Clinton, said of his role as a legislator.
Reeves noted that the state was home to literary legends, sports heroes and scientific breakthroughs, achievements the state should celebrate.
“I believe strongly that in many instances we need to stop apologizing and start bragging about Mississippi’s many great accomplishments,” Reeves said. “I think this celebration of our bicentennial is an opportunity to do just that.”
When asked about the possibility of legislators introducing a bill to change the state flag before the bicentennial, Reeves said he would not support it unless citizens had a chance to vote on it.
The current state flag bears a Confederate battle emblem and came under renewed scrutiny after Dylann Roof, 21, killed nine African American worshippers at an historic church in Charleston, S.C. After the massacre, photos of Roof, who was convicted of murder and faces the death penalty, posing with the Rebel flag were made public.
“It’s pretty clear that the people of Mississippi made a decision about 15 years ago and I therefore am against unilateral action by the governor. I’m against unilateral action by the Mississippi Legislature to change our current state flag,” Reeves said.
If there is going to be a change, Reeves added, “it is imperative that the people have a chance to vote on changing that flag so that’s the only bill that I would personally support.”
Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, told those attending a press conference and reception celebrating the bicentennial that $500,000 has been set aside by the Legislature for communities to host bicentennial events this year. The grants are provided by the Mississippi Humanities Council, working in partnership with Visit Mississippi. To apply for a grant, the proposed program must focus on the state’s history, culture or bicentennial anniversary.
Historical reenactments, literary and cinema festivals are also planned across the state throughout the year, including two regional celebrations that will take place in Gulfport on April 1 and Oxford on June 24.
Jackson will host a celebration on Dec. 9 in conjunction with the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Not business as usual
The leaders’ remarks on the bicentennial came on the heels of the official convening of the 2017 legislative session. In a slight departure from the norm, a tiny bit of legislative business was addressed on Tuesday.
In the Senate, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, wasted no time attempting to change part of a law passed last year that defunded the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS).
“There is a provision in the appropriations bill for public education which provides that none of the funds in the entire bill may be expended if any local school districts send funds to MASS,” Bryan said.
Bryan’s motion asked the Senate to move into a “Committee of the Whole,” a legislative tactic that would have allowed the entire Senate to consider the bill immediately.
However, Bryan did not get the votes needed, and the Senate voted instead to send the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Former House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson told the Associated Press last summer that school superintendents attacked opponents of a 2015 proposed constitutional amendment that would have required the Legislature to fully fund the state’s education funding formula.
“When they attack people like that, they’re biting the hand that feeds them, and maybe next time they need to think about,” Frierson told the Associated Press when asked about the defunding of MASS.
Bryan said many who voted for the bill did not realize that provision was in the K-12 funding bill, and that it was passed at the last hour.
“Retaliating against superintendents is just the wrong thing to do,” Bryan said.
The House Education Committee also met briefly to make technical changes to a bill Gov. Phil Bryant vetoed in 2016.
The first wave of bills
As of the end of Tuesday, more than 300 House bills had been posted on the state’s website. Among the notable pieces of legislation:
HB1 – Classifies venomous snakes as inherently dangerous to humans. Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson
HB7 – The Mississippi Telephone Solicitation Act; add “political calls” as prohibited. Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown
HB8 – Establishes a $9 state minimum wage and sets requirements for exemptions and overtime. Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis
HB66 – Prohibits conjugal visits for offenders committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections. Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman
HB 112 and HB 113 – Expand the state’s Medicaid eligibility requirements under the federal Affordable Care Act. Reps. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, and Bryant Clark, D-Pickens.
HB 128 – Requires universities to place 33 percent of college bowl game revenue into escrow accounts to distribute to graduating athletes, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel.
HB 154 – Revise MAEP to provide greater funding to school districts showing greatest levels of growth and proficiency. Rep. Henry Zuber, R-Ocean Springs.
HB 179 – Create a medical marijuana pilot program in Mississippi for patients who are prescribed marijuana by a doctor. Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison.
HB 212 – Allow undocumented students to attend Mississippi universities with in-state tuition under certain provisions. Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson.
HB 228, 249, 303 – Authorize early voting. Reps. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, and Earle Banks, D-Jackson.
HB 267 – Elect schools boards every four years for four year terms. Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon.
HB 284 – School boards of failing districts cannot keep students from transferring out of that district. Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon.
HB 305 – Abolish party primaries. Rep. Stephen Horne, R-Meridian.
HB 310 – Grant an additional two percent of sales tax collections in municipalities with fewer than 10,000 residents for road and bridge improvements. Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville.