The 2022 legislative session, which begins at noon on Tuesday, is shaping up as one of the most eventful in recent memory.
Legislators — 52 senators and 122 House members — will face a litany of issues, any one of which could consume much of the time and energy of a regular session.
If this year is like others, many issues that no one is talking about will become controversial and will dominate a large portion of the session. That nearly always happens — such as removing the state flag in 2020 or stripping some of the city of Jackson’s authority over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in 2016.
With just 90 days in the scheduled regular session, lawmakers will have a chore on their hands. In no particular order, here is a list of some of the top issues facing legislators:
Reinstating the ballot initiative process
In May 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court in a landmark and controversial ruling said that the state’s initiative process was invalid. The court made the ruling based on the fact the constitutional language setting up the initiative process said signatures to place issues on the ballot must be gathered equally from five U.S. House districts. The state has had only four districts since the 2000 U.S. Census, making it impossible for initiative sponsors to carry out that mandate.
It will take agreement from a two-thirds majority from each chamber to place an issue on the ballot to allow citizens to reinstate the process by which they can garner signatures to place issues on the ballot. Most likely, there will be an effort to change the old process so that citizens gather signatures to place issues on the ballot to change or amend state law instead of the Constitution.
When the Supreme Court struck down the initiative process, it did so in a ruling on a lawsuit challenging the validity of a November 2020 vote on an initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Results from that election, of course, were also thrown out.
All of the state’s top political leaders — Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov, Delbert Hosemann and Gov. Tate Reeves — said they want to legalize medical marijuana during the 2022 session. But Reeves has said he will veto legislation in its current form because it allows too large of a quantity of marijuana to be disbursed to individuals.
The Legislature is slated to take up the redrawing of the four U.S. House seats and 174 state legislative seats during the 2022 session to adhere to population shifts found by the 2020 U.S. Census.
The drawing of the state legislative districts, in particular, has the potential to be contentious because it impacts each lawmaker’s ability to be reelected.
Mississippi teachers remain on or near the bottom in the region and nationally in terms of pay. Legislative leaders and the governor have indicated that a significant raise will be passed in the 2022 session on the heels of the $1,000 raise approved last session.
In his 2019 gubernatorial campaign, Reeves committed to a multi-year, $4,300 raise for teachers. But in his first budget proposal after being elected, he said nary a word about a teacher pay raise.
But coming into this session, the governor has proposed a $3,300 raise phased in during three years. The Senate leadership, in particular, has said not only the salary, but other items, such as the cost of health insurance for teachers, should be considered this session as part of any teacher pay consideration.
Cutting the personal income tax
Both the speaker and governor have proposed phasing out the income tax, which accounts for about one-third of state general fund revenue. Because of the state’s strong tax collections, Reeves has proposed a five-year phase out. Last year Gunn proposed increasing the sales tax on various retail items to help offset the elimination of the income tax and to offset his proposal to also cut the 7% sales tax on groceries in half.
What, if anything happens on the income tax, could have a direct impact on another issue: teacher pay.
A $4.2 billion surplus of funds
Unprecedented revenue growth, fueled at least in part by circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic, have resulted in a staggering state surplus in funds. That surplus includes $1.8 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds that are designed to help deal with the pandemic.
But legislators have considerable discretion in how those funds are spent. Hosemann has said he wants to ensure the impact for the state in the spending of the unprecedented funds “is generational, not for one or two years, but for one or two generations.”
Legislators also must be aware that the recent rapid growth in the tax collections will likely slow dramatically as circumstances surrounding the pandemic change.
Critical race theory
Both Gunn and Reeves have voiced their support of legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory, which the state Department of Education has said repeatedly is not being taught in Mississippi schools.
The issue could be one of the most contentious taken up during the session. Many fear that any ban of critical race theory, which is in general terms a collegiate level academic field, would prevent the teaching of the impact of race and racism on the state and country and also conflict with an existing state law calling for the teaching of civil rights and its history in Mississippi.
The issue might not come up, but it will be on the backburner for the session. Mississippi is one of only 12 state not to expand Medicaid and receive literally billions in federal funds to provide health coverage for between 150,000 and 300,000 Mississippians who primarily work, but in jobs that do not provide health insurance.
The federal government normally pays 90% of the costs of Medicaid expansion, but because of congressional action in response to the coronavirus, the feds will now pay even more to states that expand.
Gunn and Reeves have voiced strong opposition to expansion. Hosemann has indicated he would be willing to study the issue and had indicated Senate committees would before the 2022 session began, but they did not.