A citizen’s guide to the 2017 legislative session

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Although dysfunction — over infrastructure funding, the budget and between giant political personalities — dominated headlines during the 2017 legislative session, laws were passed and state operations were funded. 

Soon, thanks to lawmakers, beer makers in  Mississippi will be able to sell their suds on site, backseat passengers will have to buckle up, politicians won’t be able to go on shopping sprees with campaign cash and the state will have some new ways to execute people convicted of crimes.

The state’s largest hospital will be able to team up with private companies while an effort to give the governor control of two of the state’s largest health agencies lost steam as it moved through the legislative process.

In addition, domestic violence victims have more tools to help them get out of abusive marriages and the city of Jackson is one of the few cities that is assured help from the state with ailing roads.

Annals of justice

Social wedge issues mostly took a backseat to meat and potatoes fiscal matters this year, but top leaders did back legislation important to their conservative base.

Even though House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves locked horns on infrastructure, Republicans were in lockstep on punishing people who commit crimes against police officers and other emergency professionals as well as banning cities and other local entities from acting to protect undocumented immigrants.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, foreground, looks into the House chamber gallery after delivering his State of the State address.

Gov. Phil Bryant, before the session ended, signed the Legislature’s answer to so-called Blue Lives Matter legislation enacted in other states, including neighboring Louisiana.

The “Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Act,”  HB 645, enhances the penalties for crimes committed against law enforcement officers, firefighters,and emergency medical personnel. The bill becomes effective July 1.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I all too well understand the challenges that occur each and every day when you put that badge on and you go to work,” Bryant, a former Hinds County deputy, said before he signed the bill.

Bryant has also signed a measure that bans cities, colleges and universities from establishing so-called sanctuary cities. At an unannounced bill signing in his Capitol office, Bryant said the law is aimed at “those (immigrants) who have committed violent” or “criminal acts.”

Bryant called out the city of Jackson for a policy it adopted that prohibits police officers from asking about the immigration status of people suspected of crimes. Officials in Jackson have said the policy is designed to prevent racial profiling not to provide sanctuary for criminals.

In other law-and-order developments, House Bill 638 stated that if chemicals that replace the traditional injection cocktail — pentobarbital, a muscle relaxer and potassium chloride — meet legal resistances, an alternative sequence would be used.

However, the Senate, during one round of negotiations, removed the firing squad as an execution option. A compromise between the Senate and House negotiators allows Mississippi to use lethal injection, the gas chamber, electrocution and a firing squad — in that order — should courts deem one method to be unconstitutional.

A resolution for domestic abuse and divorce

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, raises his hands and declares he has presented his final bill for the session on Tuesday.

Even in victory, Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, defended his decision early in the session to not to add domestic violence as a 13th ground for divorce in Mississippi, saying the state should be working to keep marriages together.

Following social media backlash from across the nation, Gipson presented a compromise proposal that adds a definition for “spousal domestic abuse” to existing state grounds for divorce. The bill originally clarified legal placement options for abused children.

Gipson’s compromise adds language that details what constitutes abusive physical and non-physical conduct, and standard of proof for judges to consider when ruling on divorce cases. It also allows the injured spouse to testify and the court consider that spouse a credible witness. Under existing divorce law, an additional witness is required to corroborate testimony from a spouse about abuse.

During Gipson’s proposal, he read from a section of Mississippi code related to trusts and estates, domestic relations and torts that he believes already provides a grounds for divorce.

“Marriage is the only time when one plus one equals one. One man and one woman coming together in holy matrimony, being one flesh. Anybody that beats up on their own flesh, we call them crazy and insane,” Gipson said on Tuesday amid shouts from the House floor to vote on the issue and move on.

After the House unanimously approved the measure, Gipson yielded the floor, raising his arms to signal that it would be his last time addressing his colleagues from the podium during the session, which drew applause from fellow members.

Campaign finance reform

After years of talk about lawmakers’ affinity for cowboy boots and recreational vehicles, the Legislature hammered out a deal on a campaign-finance reform package.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

If Senate Bill 2689 is signed into law by the governor, beginning Jan. 1, 2018, candidates will no longer be able to use campaign money for personal expenses, pay relatives or make loans to other political candidates.

Sen. Sally Doty’s bill also requires itemization of credit card expenses and gives candidates who close their campaign accounts the option of returning the balances to donors, transferring funds to a political-action committee, donating to charity or giving the money to the state treasury.

Disorganized Reorganization 

One of the biggest fights this session ended as swiftly as it began.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Read, R-Gautier

Senate Bill 2567, known as the Health Agency Reorganization Act of 2017, would have given the governor control of the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation Services. Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, who sponsored mirror legislation in the House, described the bill as a “cost-cutting measure,” and said grouping the three agencies together would allow them to share services.

But the heads of the agencies and their boards fought back, calling the legislation an unnecessary power play by the governor, who would now have the power to remove and appoint the heads of those agencies at will.

The foundation of the bill crumbled quickly. The Senate amended the bill to exclude the Departments of Health and Rehabilitation Services from the legislation, leaving only the Department of Mental Health subject to reorganization

House Bill 926, known as the Health Care Collaboration Act, also faced intense scrutiny but ultimately passed. Now a law signed by Bryant, it relaxes restrictions on how the University of Mississippi Medical Center strikes partnerships and buys equipment. As a state agency, UMMC often endures a much longer approval process than private hospitals; as a result, proponents argued that deals fall apart in the meantime.

The new bill was stripped down, but good enough, according to UMMC.

University of Mississippi Medical Center

UMMC Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward

“It’s not the whole sandwich; it’s about 40 percent of the sandwich,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor of UMMC, in a conversation with Mississippi Today. “But it gives us something that we can get started on and that we can continue to work with in the next session.”

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the session that he was proud of the legislation, which he thinks will ultimately increase access to care for many Mississippians by making it easier for UMMC to partner with smaller hospitals.

“That was something that we think will in the long run serve to benefit all of our citizens with better health care.”

Sippin’ craft brews on-site

After years of battle with major beer distributors, Mississippi’s craft brewers can now sell their beer on the site of their breweries.

The new law allows craft breweries to sell beer in on-site brewpubs and up to two cases of beer a customer per day.

Proponents of the law, both Republicans and Democrats, said they believe the bill will increase tourism and level the playing field for Mississippi breweries.

Oversight of boards and commissions

The governance of 26 state occupational boards will now fall under the purview of the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general.

Occupational boards, typically comprised of industry professionals, regulate who gets into the respective professions and what that person can do once they are a member of that profession.

Lawmakers this session, with the blessing of Bryant and his staff, introduced the bills in response to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The high court ruled that the state of North Carolina’s dental licensing board, which was made up mainly of persons active in the dental industry, only had immunity from antitrust lawsuits when the board was supervised by the state government.

The new law should, in theory, protect the state from lawsuits stemming from that 2015 ruling, lawmakers said.

Faith-Based Advisory Council

Lawmakers passed a bill that would create the Mississippi Faith-Based and Community Advisory Council, a governor’s council that will serve as a liaison between groups wishing to address social issues and state governmental entities.

The council will have authority to advise the governor on “policies, priorities, and objectives to enlist, equip, enable, empower, and expand the work of faith-based, volunteer, and other community organizations.”

The idea for the council came from its existence in other states like Florida, Delaware, Michigan and New Jersey.

  • Charles Pearce

    Well done — excellent overview of the 2017 session — a must read.