There were few surprises as the Mississippi Legislature convened Tuesday to begin the 2018 session.
By and large, legislative leaders—Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves—zoned in on unresolved issues from last year as key topics to address this session. These include adopting a new education funding formula, improving the state’s roads and bridges and reforming how the Division of Medicaid operates.
The Legislature failed to produce or pass a new school funding formula in the 2017 session, but Gunn said a new bill is being drafted that will use recommendations from EdBuild, the New Jersey-based consultant the Legislature hired last year to provide options for a new funding formula.
“We want to find a formula that is predictable, that is understandable, that is reliable,” Gunn said.
Once complete, the new bill “basically takes those recommendations and puts them into bill form,” Gunn said, but added that lawmakers would not use every recommendation.
EdBuild’s recommendations suggest switching to a formula that adds weights for certain types of students such as English language learners and low-income students. Following the release of EdBuild’s report, several lawmakers in larger school districts decried less funding from the state, which would likely mean municipal tax increases for their constituents.
Reeves on Tuesday said that while no timetable is in place for the new formula to be announced, providing information to lawmakers will be a priority should the new formula “rear its head” this session, signaling that a rewrite might not happen this year.
“One of the things we owe to our members and the people of Mississippi is that once there are conversations about (a final formula), every member fully understands and appreciates what that would mean to their individual district in terms of relative funding from last year to this year and relative funding over a period of years,” Reeves said.
In the House, the education committee is currently without a chairman after former Rep. John Moore of Brandon resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. Gunn said he hopes to have a new chairperson in place by the end of the week.
In other action, the House sent three bills Gov. Phil Bryant vetoed or partially vetoed last session back to their respective committees for further consideration.
House Bill 1502 involves appropriations for the State Department of Education; House Bill 1033 would prevent incarceration for failing to pay a fine or court costs; House Bill 1447 would have allowed certain counties to sell alcohol.
After last year’s failed attempt to raise new money for infrastructure, leaders are eyeing another push for some kind of roads bill.
Several Republican leaders and business leaders across the state have urged for more funding to the Mississippi Department of Transportation to address the current state of roads and bridges. Some lawmakers have pitched the notion of raising the fuel tax or tobacco tax to pad the appropriations to MDOT.
“I think it’s unlikely either an increase in tobacco tax or gas tax would have the type of support it would take to pass,” Reeves said. “I believe that roads and bridges are core functions of government and something we ought to spend more money on in the state of Mississippi.
“It’s not as if we haven’t spent any money. It’s just a matter of should we spend more, and I believe that we should,” Reeves said.
The second-term lieutenant governor, who is eyeing a run for governor in 2019, said while he personally opposes a state lottery and he doesn’t think it will draw considerable new revenue, he believes that there are enough votes in both the Senate and House to implement the lottery.
In the offseason, Gunn commissioned a panel of lawmakers and business leaders to study the merits of adopting a state lottery. In the final meeting of that commission, experts presented mixed effects the game might have on the state, ranging from moral to economic implications.
“I think what you’d see is some folks that are spending 100 percent of their disposable income, instead of going into the grocery story and buying a Coke or buying a pack of nabs, they would instead go buy lottery tickets to hopefully hit it big,” Reeves said.
“But there may be some additional revenue there, and I think that legislators in both the House and Senate would love to talk about this,” Reeves continued.
In other first-day odds and ends, newly elected Sen. Joel Carter, R-Gulfport, was sworn in Tuesday morning. Carter won a special election last month to fill the vacant seat of former Sen. Sean Tindell, whom Bryant appointed to the state court of appeals.
In the House, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, took a personal point of privilege to address the dementia diagnosis he revealed to a hushed chamber last year. In March 2017, Holland told his peers on the House floor he was diagnosed with dementia and planned to retire at the end of his term in 2020. On Tuesday, Holland said he no longer struggles with memory loss.
“I stand here today with great vigor and a strong mind,” Holland said. “I’m here to tell you I am feeling great and have a plethora of passion about what my people sent me here to do.”