Backdrop of statewide elections likely to dominate 2019 session

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Political leaders weigh on how an election year might affect the legislative session.

The overarching factor influencing the 2019 legislative session, which begins at noon Tuesday, most likely will be the election later in the year.

“I am sure that will play a factor,” said Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth.

In the Senate, presiding officer Tate Reeves, the state’s lieutenant governor, is running for governor. He will face a Republican primary challenge from freshman Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando. Another House freshman, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, is running for lieutenant governor and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, is running for treasurer.

And, who knows who may qualify for what offices before the March 1 deadline.

In addition, all 174 legislative seats will be up for re-election later this year. Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans will try to hold on to their three-fifths super majority as Democrats, who controlled the Legislature during the 20th century, attempt to regain some of that past political power.

“I don’t think it is going to be a very contentious session. It is an election year,” said state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. “There might be a little effort at one upmanship by the (Republican) super majority.”

But the conventional wisdom is that controversial, major legislation is tackled in the third year of a four-year term, not the final year when lawmakers prep to run for re-election.

Still, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said, “As I’ve said repeatedly — not only to my caucus but others who have asked — it’s not a year to do nothing. We’re going to do something. We were sent up here to work, and just because it’s an election year doesn’t mean we can take a pass. We’ve got things that we need to do.”

But Gunn concedes that he does not believe 2019 will be a controversial session. Gunn said controversial issues from last year, such as the leadership’s unsuccessful efforts to rewrite the school-funding formula and expand school voucher-like scholarship accounts, are not likely to be seriously considered in 2019.

The major issue seems to revolve around providing a teacher pay raise, but Gunn made it clear recently that state employees should be included in any effort to provide a pay raise for teachers.

Thus far, leaders have provided few details about any potential pay raises, but they concede the final decision will rest on the outlook for revenue growth.

The last teacher pay raise was passed in the 2014 session. It gave teachers a $2,400 across-the-board pay increase over a two-year period. In addition, starting in the third year, the legislation provided an opportunity for teachers to receive smaller raises based on the performance of their school.

According to 2017 statistics from the National Education Association, Mississippi ranks last nationally in average teacher pay at $42,925 per year. The national average is $59,660.

State employees have not had an across-the-board raise since the 2007 session, although legislators have given agency directors more flexibility to provide employees raises for multiple reasons, such as achieving educational benchmarks.

Still, the average annual salary of Mississippi state employees — $37,911 per year – trails contiguous states.

One issue that could be contentious is Medicaid expansion, which the federal Affordable Care Act allows to provide health care for  the working poor. Legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Bryant have rejected efforts to expand Medicaid, though Mississippi Today has learned that Bryant’s stance on the issue might be softening as his administration has quietly talked about a version of expansion.

But there has been no indication that the legislative leadership’s position on Medicaid expansion is softening. Gunn said recently he does not believe it will be an issue in the 2019 session. Reeves has not commented on the 2019 session.

If Bryant does try to expand Medicaid, he could look to the Democratic minority for support.

“All Mississippians need greater access to improved, more proactive health care that could prevent many from ever needing to visit a hospital emergency room,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, head of the Democratic caucus. “Rural residents need access to hospital care closer to home. Rural hospitals are closing and vital services are being discontinued because Medicaid expansion was rejected in our state. Legislative Democrats have supported Medicaid expansion since 2011.”

An area where significant legislation could be passed is that of criminal-justice reform. Both Bryant and Democrats have been touting such efforts.

Simmons said, “Our criminal-justice system needs more revamping so our jail populations are reduced and taxpayers’ dollars are saved and reinvested. Nonviolent and low-level offenders should be rehabilitated and released back into society with dignity and respect.”

While most issues are not expected to generate much contention, there could be controversy surrounding both Senate Pro Tempore Terry Burton, R-Newton, and House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian. Both are facing fallout from recent arrests for driving under the influence.

In the Senate, Reeves has said he thinks Burton should step aside from the pro tem spot, while in the House Gunn has said he is asking the chamber’s Ethics Committee to look at the issue.

The drunk driving issues could be addressed early in the session. It would take a vote of the chamber to remove either  officer from the leadership posts.