House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann seem to agree on the issues that need to be addressed during the 2022 legislative session, but the devil might be in the details of how those items are resolved.
The two presiding officers offered few specifics Tuesday — the opening day of the 2022 legislative session — but said they anticipate taking up taxes, providing teachers a significant pay raise and reenacting medical marijuana after the voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana was struck down this past May by the state Supreme Court.
In terms of quick action, both indicated that the plan to redraw the state’s four congressional districts to adhere to population shifts gleaned from the 2020 U.S. Census might be one of the first items taken up. The quick action is needed because the deadline to qualify to seek one of the four House districts is March 1.
Here’s what Gunn and Hosemann said about key issues after they adjourned for the day on Jan. 4.
“Candidly, that is not a top issue for us (the House),” Gunn said of medical marijuana.
“That is something the Senate is taking the lead on and we don’t have a bill. We’ll have to see what the Senate passes — we’ll just have to wait and see,” Gunn said.
Asked about Reeves’ opposition to allowing patients to receive up to 3.5 grams of cannabis a day, Gunn said: “We certainly have been trying to move it into a more conservative direction. The House has taken the position that we want it to be as close to a true medical program as we can get it.”
Hosemann said Tuesday additional committee hearings will be held on the issue and it is likely that the fall agreement reached by House and Senate leaders will face some changes.
On Tuesday, the Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance held a rally on the steps of the Capitol, urging lawmakers to reinstate a medical marijuana program — after voters approved it, but the state Supreme Court shot it down.
Hosemann did not offer any details, but discounted the possibility of passing a bill similar to the one proposed last year by Gunn. That bill would have phased out the personal income tax, reduced by half the 7% tax on groceries and increased the sales tax on most other retail items by 2.5 cents for each $1 purchase.
“I anticipate the Senate will have a tax relief bill,” Hosemann said. “We were not persuaded by a tax swap. We want tax relief.”
Gunn said some “tweaks” will be offered to his proposal, but that it remains his top priority.
“We believe we have a solid plan,” Gunn said. “We believe there is no downside to putting money back into the pockets of Mississippians.”
Gov. Tate Reeves also has criticized Gunn’s plan as a “tax swap” and said he oppose increasing sales and other taxes.
Gunn said: “There have been some misrepresentations made about that bill. It is not a tax increase. It is a net tax deduction, reduction … We are not married to our proposal, but unfortunately, no one else has come forward with an idea. We don’t want a mere token to check the box to say we passed some sort of tax reform. We want something that puts real dollars back into the pockets of Mississippians.”
Gunn said the House will have a teacher pay raise proposal, but would not specify the amount or details.
“You’ll see it when we bring it out, but I think it’s going to be a very good plan,” Gunn said.
Hosemann said he anticipates the Senate will support a teacher pay increase proposal larger than the roughly $1,000 salary hike approved by the Legislature in the 2021 session.
He also said that plan could be unveiled this week if Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, releases his teacher pay bill as expected.
Both Hosemann and Gunn advocated for reenacting the initiative process where voters can gather a mandated number of signatures to place issues on the ballot. That process was struck down when the state Supreme Court ruled invalid the medical marijuana initiative.
Both said they would prefer the process be used to amend general law and not the state Constitution. They both pointed out that when items are placed in the Constitution, they are more difficult to change or remove.
“I think that is too inflexible for us,” Hosemann said of initiatives to amend the Constitution.
“You have to have the ability to tweak things as circumstances change,” Gunn said.
It is not clear, Hosemann said, that citizens would have to vote to reenact the initiative process if it is going to be used just to amend general law and not the Constitution. He said research is being conducted on whether that could be done by a simple act of the Legislature.
“I just don’t think that Medicaid expansion is realistic,” Gunn said. “Personally, I’m not for it. I’ve been very clear that I’m against it. I don’t see that as a way forward in Mississippi. We need to be looking for ways to get people off Medicaid, not put them on Medicaid. But the bottom line is it’s all an academic discussion until you’ve got the votes, and I don’t think the votes exist.”
Hosemann continues to refuse to utter the phase medical expansion, which is allowed under federal law to provide health care coverage to primarily the working poor. But he continues to say he supports the working poor having access to health care. He even referenced an instance where a woman working as a store clerk died of cancer because she could not afford health care, leaving two children and a husband who is a mechanic.
Hosemann said similar tragedies occur throughout the state because of the lack of health care access.
Asked if there will be an effort this session to enhance health care access to poor Mississippians, Hosemann said, “We are working on it for as soon as we can do it.”