Top issues still up for debate after deadline day

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Bills that survived Tuesday’s first major legislative deadlines will set the tone and highlight the major themes for the rest of this year’s session.

Speaker Philip Gunn made his mark during the session’s first two weeks, shepherding through the House an ambitious rewrite of the public school funding formula and several new ways to pay for infrastructure maintenance.

Other key topics have emerged that Capitol observers are sure to watch closely as they spark debate on the House and Senate floors. Here is a look at some of the key issues yet to be resolved:

Education 

Early in the session, the House rushed out a 354-page bill that would rewrite the state’s education formula. Gunn lauded the legislation as a joint effort between the House and Senate, but Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has yet to address the issue. When asked by Mississippi Today, his spokesperson Laura Hipp said Reeves is “committed to implementing student-centered funding for Mississippi schools that better addresses the needs of the classrooms of today.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

The House sent its bill to the Senate on Jan. 18, but Reeves still has not assigned it to a committee. The Senate did not produce its own education funding bill ahead of the committee deadline, so the question of what will happen to school funding in Mississippi this year remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, a bill that would greatly expand the state’s current education scholarship account program survived in the Senate.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, author of the bill, told committee members the time to act is now to bring Mississippi out of last place in education, and school choice is a viable way to do so.

Senate Bill 2623 would make all students who attended public schools the previous year eligible for the accounts. Students whose parents are in the military and students in the foster car system or adopted from that system would not need to meet that requirement. Students with special needs and low-income students would receive priority for the accounts.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, spoke against the bill, pointing out that after full implementation it could cost the state around $140 million in funds going from public schools to private schools and other educational services. The bill would cap participation to one-half of a percent of public school enrollment the first year, or 2,400 students, then add more students in each subsequent year.

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Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

“I can’t believe we’re about to do something of this importance with so little thought and so little discussion,” Blount said.

In a statement, Reeves said the bill “could have more impact on long-term economic progress than any other bill debated in the Legislature.”

“We have a long way to go to secure enough votes in the House of Representatives, but today’s action moves us one step closer to making this a reality,” he said.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, killed a similar House bill Tuesday.

Roads 

A handful of road funding bills passed out of the House in the first weeks of the session, most notably an infrastructure bill that would pull $108 million from the state budget and divert it to road and bridge funding around the state. Like the House education bill, it has yet to be assigned to a Senate committee by Reeves.

Infrastructure funding was an another early focus of Gunn’s. A bill that would divert $108 million in general fund dollars mainly to cities and counties for road and bridge repair was passed by the House in just the second week of the session. Determining where to find that cash in the general fund will almost certainly prove difficult. Reeves has spoken against what he calls temporary fixes to the long term infrastructure problem.

Health care 

Because the laws governing the Division of Medicaid expire at the end of this fiscal year, the Medicaid technical bills, which reauthorize the agency, have dominated healthcare conversation at the Capitol. Senate and House bills on this issue have each made it out of committee.

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Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula

The Senate bill, sponsored by Medicaid Committee Chair Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, doesn’t make dramatic changes to the law. One provision would “standardize” the pre-authorization process Medicaid uses to approve patient procedures.

Other changes, such as providing certain medicines and increasing allowed doctor visits, were recommendations from the Medical Care Advisory Committee, intended to encourage investing in preventative care. The idea is that spending money on less expensive procedures upfront ultimately keeps patients from needing big ticket procedures like inpatient hospital stays and temergency room visits.

The initial draft of the bill had included several items intended to “control costs,” according to Wiggins. The most controversial of these was one that would have allowed the Division of Medicaid and the state’s managed care companies to cut the rates they pay healthcare providers for services. Wiggins said “provider feedback” pushed him to remove it.

One of the most controversial issues this session has been Child Protection Services, which announced a whopping $38 million deficit earlier this month. Since then the agency has worked with the Department of Human Services, reducing their request to $12 million. But legislators have said they’re still unclear about where to find the money.

Legislators have admitted their role in the deficit, saying they didn’t realize that moving Child Protection Services out from under the Department of Human Services in 2016 would drastically reduce the amount of federal funding they received. House Bill 1171, sponsored by Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, would turn Child Protection Services into a subagency of DHS in the hopes of avoiding a similar crisis in future budget years.

The decision last year to cap spending on the Department of Mental Health’s disability waiver program led to what legislators called an “unintended consequence” of freezing enrollment to the program since July 1. House Bill 1234, sponsored by House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, would roll back that spending cap.

Criminal Justice 

Unlike previous years, where leaders put criminal-justice issues high on their list of priorities, several law-and-order bills have quietly made it to the forefront.

The House previously passed a bill that would define gangs and stiffen penalties for “criminal gang activity.”

On the committee deadline day, the House Corrections Committee passed a half-dozen bills, including two that would crackdown on the use of cell phones in state prisons. One would enhance penalties for correctional officers found guilty of smuggling drugs into prisons. Another, HB 1124 would make it a felony to talk to a prisoner on a cellphone, which are considered contraband.

Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, chairman of the Corrections Committee, called the presence of cellphones “one of the biggest nemeses we have have,” because the phones have been used to plan crimes, including murder and extortion.

Kinkade cited Mississippi Department of Corrections statistics that the agency recovered 2,700 cell phones in 2017. MDOC house about 24,000 inmates.

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Rep. Joel Bomgar

At least three committee members voted against the bill, which they believed could have unintended consequences for family members and possibly lawmakers and others who receive phone calls from incarcerated people.

“Due to the high cost of collect calls, a lot of mamas are not going to be able to resist talking to their child in prison and they’re not plotting gang activity and they’re not smuggling drugs and flying drones,” said Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison.

Another bill the committee sent to the full House would prohibit the use of unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, near prisons.

BP funding

A battle is brewing again this year among lawmakers regarding how to spend millions in BP oil spill settlement money. BP, the multinational oil and gas company, agreed to pay Mississippi $750 million for damages related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill which impacted the entire Gulf Coast region.

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, had already earmarked $41 million of that check for specific projects within the coastal counties.
The remaining $109.6 million is currently sitting in the state treasury. Starting in 2019, the state will receive payments of $40 million a year until 2033.

Gulf Coast delegates, regardless of party affiliation, have ardently lobbied to keep the majority of the money in the three coastal counties. Others across the state see the money as a much-needed revenue gift for infrastructure improvements or other budgetary needs.

The Senate this month passed a bill that would, in theory, handle how millions in BP settlement funds can be spent. The bill would place the BP money into a separate fund that could be drawn upon “for projects benefiting the Gulf Coast.”

Meanwhile, the House, which killed that same Senate bill last year, passed several measures this month that would dictate how BP settlement money can be spent. The House Appropriations committee passed two bills Tuesday that would split up the settlement money into 10 developmental districts along the Gulf Coast.

Representatives from those districts would then distribute money through a grant application process for projects that “will have a significant impact on the tax base,” workforce development projects, and infrastructure improvement projects.