The 2017 legislative session enters its 77th day Monday, leaving just 13 days for lawmakers to finalize several key pieces of legislation.
Before the session began, Mississippi Today pinpointed eight topics to keep an eye on this session: Tax reform, public education funding, widespread budget cuts, special fund patchwork, BP settlement spending, election reform, roads and bridges funding and the state flag issue.
All but one of those – tax reform – became a focus for lawmakers, and immigration and women’s issues crept into the session.
With a few days left, here’s an update on each of the issues lawmakers have focused on this session.
Undoubtedly the most talked about topic this legislative session was a revamp of the state’s public school funding formula. But with only two weeks left in the session and a host of passed deadlines, all lawmakers and the public have seen is a report by New Jersey-based consulting firm EdBuild released in January.
The Legislature kept alive “dummy,” or placeholder, bills bringing out code sections of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program throughout the first deadlines in the session. However, on the deadline day for bills to pass the floor in the chamber they originated, the House adjourned early without passing any bills. The Senate, in a recess to see what the House did, then adjourned soon after. All education funding bills died on the calendar.
Since then, legislative leaders have not spoken publicly about where things stand. Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have said a special session to consider a new funding formula is possible.
Some say EdBuild’s recommendation to eliminate the 27 percent rule, effectively shifting some of the burden of funding schools from the state to local communities, is at the heart of the possible standstill. Reeves has suggested all recommendations by EdBuild, including the 27 percent rule, are on the table. Gunn has said he has not taken an opinion on the rule.
Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, presented the placeholder bill to the House Appropriations Committee early in the process. He said at that time he would not support doing away with the 27 percent rule.
Although the Legislature could have passed a placeholder bill the day of the February deadline, many lawmakers told Mississippi Today at that time they would not feel comfortable voting for a dummy bill.
Education advocates and members of the public held a rally at the Capitol last week asking for a “seat at the table” in the ongoing rewrite of the formula. Public school parents and some legislators have taken issue with what they say is a rewrite taking place behind closed doors.
Legislative leaders, however, point to the fact that EdBuild visited several districts across the state seeking input and a public comment session was held in Jackson in November.
Spokeswomen for Gunn and Reeves said last week they had no comment on where things currently stand with the rewrite.
Leaders in Mississippi have talked about how to solve the state’s infrastructure problem for years.
Department of Transportation leaders have said they need at least $375 million to begin fixing crumbling roads and bridges. The Mississippi Economic Council says $975 million is the desired figure.
But no funding bill moved through the Legislature this session.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has put all his weight behind an amended Senate bill that would divert revenue from an existing use tax from Internet sales (about $40 million per year) to pay for infrastructure improvements. The Mississippi Economic Council and Gov. Phil Bryant have praised Gunn’s efforts.
But Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has questioned legislation that would create an additional Internet sales tax, calling it “unconstitutional.” Further, Reeves expressed hesitation in pulling any revenue, even the $40 million use tax revenue, from the general fund this session because of the state’s financial situation, exacerbated by revenues not meeting projections.
Another provision of that amended Senate bill — inspired by a bill Gunn sponsored this session — would give cities and counties $50 million in bonds for roads and bridges improvements.
The bill will be discussed in conference committee.
BP settlement spending
House and Senate leaders have clashed this session after a House committee killed a Senate bill that would have moved millions in BP oil spill settlement funds into a separate account for “projects benefiting the Gulf Coast.”
The two-page bill would have done one thing: create the new fund. The bill’s supporters said it would have answered a years-long question about how state officials should spend around $600 million awarded to the state over the next 16 years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
House leaders said they killed it in part because Senate leaders expressed an unwillingness to accept amendments. Senate leaders denied that.
Reeves, who has long pushed for BP settlement funds to stay on the Gulf Coast, slammed House leaders who killed the bill. House leaders, including Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, the House Appropriations chairman, said they didn’t believe the bill had enough meat.
Read also expressed fear the House body would “hijack” the bill on the floor, potentially securing the funds to be spent elsewhere in the state.
The first portion of BP’s $750 million settlement – $150 million – arrived in July 2016. But lawmakers in March 2016, while crafting the current fiscal year’s budget, earmarked $41 million of that check for specific projects within the coastal counties.
The remaining $109.6 million is in the state treasury. Starting in 2019, the state will receive payments of $40 million a year until 2033.
The legislation is dead for this session.
Lawmakers have remained steadfast in their proposal to cut most state agency budgets next fiscal year as tax revenues continue to miss their projections.
Agency heads have lobbied for more money, but since legislative leaders have less cash on hand to distribute in the general fund budget, they have discussed budgeting for next year on “zero growth.” Essentially, lawmakers are predicting that the state’s economy will grow little, and to budget on more than that prediction would be unwise.
In large part, lawmakers have stuck to their Legislative Budget Recommendation, a $6.1 billion proposal released in December that called for $151 million in spending cuts relative to last year’s budget.
Additionally, lawmakers are expected to adhere to the 98 percent rule, setting aside 2 percent of the projected budget into the state’s largest reserve, the Rainy Day Fund.
“We’re dealing with a finite pie of funds this year,” Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, Senate Appropriations chairman, said last week. “We’ve got to cut almost across the board. It’s just how it is this year.”
The budget for next year will be finalized by this coming conference committee weekend, where a small group of legislators will hammer down details of agencies’ appropriations. The Revenue Estimating Group is expected to release new revenue projections this week, before lawmakers finalize next year’s budget.
Special fund patchwork
One of the most pressing orders of business during the 2017 session has been 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.
A comprehensive, 103-page Senate bill all but solves the problems encountered after the law took effect.
Shortly after the attorney general’s rulings were issued, legislative budget leaders worked with several agency heads to identify the specific problems caused by the law.
After months of work, the group determined that just $8.9 million in special funds – far less than the $79 million from the attorney general’s rulings – of six different agencies could not legally be swept under the new law without first adjusting language of the law.
The Senate bill cleans up that language so that agencies could access the $8.9 million of “frozen” or trapped funds, Clarke said.
“You’ve probably heard $80 million or $34 million,” Clarke said. “But it’s only about $8 million, if you could even scrap up that much.”
The sweeps law patch bill sits on the Senate calendar awaiting concurrence or non-concurrence. If senators choose not to concur with slight House changes to the bill, it will move to conference committee.
Five years had passed since the Legislature made a serious attempt at state-level immigration reform. However, after stymying past efforts, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said that in 2017 he would support prohibiting local governments and universities from adopting sanctuary policies. These are policies that municipalities, counties and agencies may adopt that prevent employers from punishing people because of their immigration status.
“I believe no local governments or state entities have the ability to break our laws creating jurisdictions of amnesty for illegal aliens,” Reeves said before the session. “No governmental entity, whether it’s city hall or on university campuses, is above following federal immigration law.”
In 2010, the city of Jackson passed what it called an anti-racial-profiling ordinance that prohibits police officers from asking about suspects’ immigration status during routine traffic stops. However, in floor debate, supporters of this year’s legislation noted that no Mississippi communities currently have passed so-called “sanctuary” regulations attempting to escape from enforcing federal immigration law.
The American Legislation Exchange Committee, a nonprofit that develops model legislation for state legislatures, created a model bill banning “sanctuary cities” that has been introduced during previous Mississippi legislative sessions, but have been unsuccessful until now.
This year’s proposed legislation saw little resistance. A bill now awaits Senate action that would ban cities from adopting policies that say police officers can’t cooperate with federal immigration officials. If the Senate agrees to changes made in the House, it will go to Bryant’s desk.
If enacted, the law could be difficult to enforce. Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, said local cops generally don’t enforce federal laws.
“The only thing we were saying is don’t put the burden on local law enforcement’s back to house people who are here illegally when we have robbers, burglars and murderers that we need in our jails,” he told Mississippi Today in January.
Mississippi’s conservative Legislature has gotten a few abortion bills passed in recent years even though they have generally drawn litigation. Therefore, it was considered unlikely that lawmakers would introduce any major abortion legislation.
However, one of the earliest dramas came before a deadline to vote bills out of committee. When it was apparent that a bill to address the state’s gender wage gap wouldn’t see the light of day, Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, attempted twice to pull the proposal out of committee and up to a straight up and down vote on the House floor.
Despite having the backing of Republican Treasurer Lynn Fitch, one of the state’s most powerful women, the Legislature never addressed the pay gap bill.
Later in the session, even though proposals to add domestic violence as a grounds for divorce have failed in past years, the decision of Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, to nix a bill this year brought on a storm of criticism and national headlines.
In explaining his decision to not consider a domestic-violence divorce bill, Gipson said: “At a time I think we need to be adopting policies that promote marriage and people sticking together, I have some serious concerns about opening the floodgates any more than they already are. I think the floodgates are already open and this just tears the dam down.”
Gipson quickly backtracked and came up with a compromise. Gipson’s amendment to a bill that addresses abused and neglected children added clarifying definitions of domestic abuse. The amendment adds “evidentiary standards” for judges to use in divorce cases, which would provide them with “guidance on what is abusive physical conduct, what constitutes abusive non-physical conduct and the standard of proof judges would have to apply.”
The bill awaits action in the Senate, which must approve the House legislation or send it to a House-Senate negotiating committee.
Election and campaign finance reform
Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann have wanted to reform the state’s election laws.
One of first bills Gunn sponsored this year would have limited candidates’ personal use of campaign funds, but the bill died in a Senate committee. A similar Senate bill met approval in both houses, and awaits approval in the Senate.
Lawmakers introduced 22 bills that would have dealt with the state flag in some way.
Twelve bills, all drafted by black Democrats, proposed a new state flag. Seven bills, all drafted by white Republicans, would have imposed statutory punishments for governmental entities refusing to fly the current flag.
Two lawmakers – Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, and Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson – filed bills that would leave the issues to Mississippi voters on a statewide ballot (one in November 2017 and the other in November 2018).
All those bills died in committee this year, killing any real efforts to change the flag or solidify the flag’s place.
In the past two weeks, the flag crept its way into conversation again. Rep. Bill Shirley, R-Quitman, entered a couple of legislative orders, slowing House action on some bills.
These proposals have gone through several rounds of procedural back and forth. Most recently, Shirley also unsuccessfully attempted to include a flag mandate on the appropriations bill for the Institutions of Higher Learning.
Editor’s note: This story previously said that a dormitory tax exemption bill was awaiting a ruling from Speaker Gunn about a flag-mandate amendment. That bill passed with the flag amendment, but later died on the calendar.
Last year’s campaign reform bill should be law, not the sanctimonious effort of this year.
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