Republican leaders, who manage a supermajority in both chambers and do not need a single Democratic vote to pass legislation, dwelled Wednesday on their missed opportunities on the final day of the 2018 legislative session.
The two marquee legislative goals for Republicans this session — infrastructure funding reform and public education funding reform — died before deals were struck. As lawmakers traveled home Wednesday afternoon, their leaders hung their hats on legislation that failed to make it through the process.
“Clearly we hit the ground running on our end, we did what we set out to do. Both of those measures died on the other end of the building,” House Speaker Philip Gunn said, referring to the death of the education formula rewrite and road funding plans.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves countered: “Other people in the building want to spend their money on walking trails and other things, and somebody has to be willing to stand there and say no.”
“The House typically wants to spend significantly more than I am willing to spend,” Reeves continued. “The House typically wants to borrow significantly more than I am willing to put taxpayers on the hook for. That’s not what I was elected to do.”
While Gunn repeatedly noted that his chamber passed their legislative priorities, Reeves argued that his chamber did everything they could to reach agreements.
“Passing legislation is tough. It’s supposed to be hard to change the law,” Reeves said. “When you look at 95 percent of Republicans’ agendas, we’ve been successful in getting it passed over the past several years.”
“On education funding, this was the very first year a bill had been brought forth,” Reeves said. “Very rarely has it been that major policy initiatives gets done the very first year it gets (brought up). Does that mean I’m any less disappointed it didn’t get passed this year? No.”
But Gunn, in an emailed statement, chastised the Senate for its failure to move the education bill: “I am very disappointed that the Senate missed the opportunity to provide our school children a better funding mechanism. Those senators who did not support the legislation failed to do what is best for the students. They let the politics of public education get in the way of our students.”
Rank-and-file members also resorted to finger-pointing when looking back on the session. Outside of the top leadership, few members interviewed on Wednesday characterized the session as successful.
“Overall, it was disappointing, I think, that we didn’t accomplish more than we accomplished this session,” said Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls. “It was disappointing we didn’t get anywhere on infrastructure or ed funding. The House was doing its part. We worked hard right out of the chute. For whatever reason, the Senate couldn’t deliver.”
“Success is in the eyes of the beholder,” said Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg. “I think we did some good things. But that’s the way it is every session. When you have 174 different personalities and agencies you can’t always get things to go one way.”
“I’m also thankful that we were able to kill some bills that could have been detrimental,” Hopson continued. “Despite what the general perception is about the legislative process, it’s just as important that we keep bad legislation from becoming law as it is that we pass good legislation.”
“I don’t know that you’d call it a success or a failure,” said Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven. “You did have the Medicaid bill pass. I’m glad the 15-week abortion bill passed. There were good things, and some worrisome bills that we were able to keep from happening.”
Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, pointed to providing funding for the Capitol Complex that the Legislature created in 2017, but also admitted several missed opportunities.
“We did not get an education funding formula passed, so that still needs to be addressed. We could not come to an understanding on infrastructure bills, but I think a lot more work still needs to be done on that,” said Burton, the Senate president pro tempore. “The BP settlement funds are something of a disappointment. It’s like Mick Jagger says, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you get what you need.'”
Gunn said Wednesday the House would continue discussions around how to spend $1 billion in BP settlement funds following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, while Reeves again emphasized that he believes “the vast majority” of that money should be spent on the Gulf Coast.
“I think if we are able to come to an agreement, the governor will quickly call a special session, and we can knock it out in half a day,” Gunn said.
Republicans lauded the passage of the 15-week abortion ban, although it was immediately blocked by the federal courts while a pending lawsuit is being considered.
Despite the federal court action, Republicans described the bill’s passage as “an achievement.”
“That is our attempt to continue to make Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child,” Reeves said, echoing a phrase used frequently by Gov. Phil Bryant. “I’m proud of members of both parties for stepping up and passing that legislation.”
Additionally, Republican leaders touted an eleventh-hour agreement on the Medicaid technical amendments bill, which regulates the operations of the health insurance program for Mississippi’s poorest citizens. An agreement was reached only after intense infighting between House and Senate leaders over whether to include an additional insurance provider favored by the state hospitals. In the end they did not.
The House unveiled a new education funding formula in January. Although leadership argued the information in the bill had been out for a year – referring to recommendations from EdBuild from the 2017 session – the 354 page bill was dropped on a Thursday night and the full House passed it six days later.
Named the “Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Act of 2018,” the bill proposed a weighted formula that assigned a base cost of $4,800 per student. Districts would receive additional categorical funds based on specific types of students, including high school, English language learners and low-income students.
A bipartisan group of legislators killed the bill in the Senate. Gunn said moving forward, the House needed to “think through” what happened to formula to better understand why eight Republican senators voted against it and see if those issues could be addressed.
When asked if the House may push for an education rewrite again next session, during an election year, he responded: “I don’t really know.”
Reeves said he hoped to meet with Gunn in the coming days to talk about education funding and other issues.
“It’s not an issue I’ve talked to a lot of (Senate) members over the past few days because we’ve been focused on other issues, but as we go into the offseason, absolutely we’re going to talk to members about what they’re looking for,” Reeves said.
The House passed several roads bills in the first three weeks of the session to make it clear that infrastructure was the members’ top priority. Reeves, however, announced a 300-page infrastructure funding plan in mid-February.
Things soon sputtered as the House and Senate sparred over key details of road and bridge repair and education funding.
Although lawmakers approved $50 million for the Local System Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program in the bond bill, some members expressed disappointment that a larger infrastructure plan was not passed. Some noted that no bond bill passed last year,putting local governments in a bind.
Rep. Cory Wilson, R-Madison, called the infrastructure packages the House passed significant, but noted that work would have to continue next year to reach a deal that can get through both chambers.
“I’d like to see us put more into local counties and cities for their own roads as well. If you look at the House version of the BRIDGE Act, they used tax diversion and pushed more of those funds to cities and counties,” Wilson said.
Various House plans called for diverting 35 percent of the state’s use tax collections, about $100 million a year, to cities and counties for roads and bridges. Reeves has objected to that idea, saying that those use taxes, which companies pay voluntarily, are unconstitutional.
“We did not feel like the BRIDGE Act would result in real help to the cities or the counties,” Gunn said, noting a Senate requirement that local governments match state funds dollar-for-dollar. “It does nothing to result in real dollars coming to the towns.”
Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs, said lawmakers are likely to encounter questions from constituents about why they did not secure more money for infrastructure. However, from his vantage point, Faulkner saw one failed legislative effort as a victory.
“Generally speaking it’s been a good session. We were able to do some good things to help our people around the state and likewise we were able to prevent some bad things from happening. For example, one that stand out of my mind was House Bill 957, the rewrite of the MAEP formula. We were able to stop that,” Faulkner said.
“We think it would have affected hundreds of thousands of children around the state,” he said. “That’s probably one of our biggest victories in the whole session to me because to change the way we do public education would have been a catastrophe for this state.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, one of the most vocal critics of attempts to redo the education formula that he helped create, echoed Faulkner.
“Our state needs roads, it needs schools, it needs public services and it needs infrastructure,” Bryan said. “We did nothing to improve our roads or our public water system. We did nothing to provide proper funding for the schools. We didn’t comply with existing law, and our budgets are so short that state agencies can’t afford to hire the employees they need to provide vital services.”
“This session’s a failure because these problems continue to exist without a solution in sight,” Bryan said. “There was legislation that would have made these problems even worse. Most of them died, so it’s a relief in the overall scheme of things this Legislature didn’t do that much damage.”