Report from the Mississippi Senate
The Legislature ended our session a few days early, but left some unfinished business and we expect to be called back before the 2018 Fiscal Year begins on July 1.
Because the House and Senate could not reach agreement, we were unable to appropriate budgets for both the Department of Transportation and the Attorney General’s Office. The House proposed language in the MDOT bill that prescribed a certain portion of voluntary Internet sales tax to be diverted for road and bridge construction, repair and maintenance and rejected the initial Conference Committee Report. The Senate initially approved the report but, reacting to House action, recommitted it to the Conference Committee where it died. The State Aid road program met the same fate for many of the same reasons.
The Attorney General’s appropriation bill, which had undergone a $4.5 million overall budget cut from its previous allocation, held language that would have inhibited the agency’s ability to enter into litigation on behalf of the State. Many of us did not agree with this language. The bill also died on the House calendar.
Both of these items must be attended to prior to the start of the new fiscal year, and we anticipate that they will be the subjects of any special session call of the governor.
We made some significant changes in campaign and election matters. Senate Bill 2689 restricts political campaign spending, prohibits personal use of campaign funds, and stops the practice of elected officials leaving office with any surplus campaign funds. Credit card expenditures will be detailed. The Ethics Commission will have oversight of this process.
We passed an “omnibus” election code reform bill in House Bill 467. The purpose of this measure is to help revamp and clean up language in the election laws to conform with current technological capabilities as well as more clearly describe and define election functions. The measure addresses everything from state through municipal election systems. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann had pushed for these changes for a number of sessions. The changes are based on recommendations put forth by a 2014 Secretary of State’s study group. While most of the changes are technical in nature, one change that will affect voters is that, beginning in 2021, municipal primary elections will be held in April rather than May and the qualifying deadline will be 30 days earlier. The continued push for online voter registration and early voting allowances failed.
We passed House Bill 1226, or the Capitol Complex Bill, which diverts 2 percent of Jackson’s state sales tax revenue to infrastructure improvement in the area of Jackson that surrounds the Capitol, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Jackson State University. That diversion will increase to 6 percent by 2020. Most capital cities have similar statutes. Much of Jackson’s prime real estate is occupied by government buildings, which takes away the tax revenue that would be there if it were privately owned. With the passage of this bill, the city will receive help in making sure that the streets and other infrastructure systems are in the best possible shape within the Capitol Complex area and benefit all the citizens by making the area making up the “Seat of Government” more attractive and user-friendly. The Department of Finance and Administration will provide direction for the program.
We also passed House Bill 926, which allows the UMMC to form profitable agreements with hospitals and other service providers around the state. With the difficulties being faced by so many rural hospitals, the infusion of a robust system as that of UMMC should help shore up our healthcare for those in outlying areas. Our smaller hospitals are suffering from major losses because reimbursements for those who cannot pay their bills are drying up, partially because the governor and Legislative leadership have stubbornly rejected Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act.
Although the Division of Medicaid did not suffer any budget cuts, it was, once again, the subject of fraud and misuse allegations, with the final result being House Bill 1090. This measure proports to provide protection against Medicaid, SNAP and TANF fraud by requiring the Division of Medicaid and Department of Human Services to contract with private entities to compare various databases to identify possibly ineligible recipients. Arguments against this measure pointed out that the state already has investigators whose job is to investigate, report and prosecute fraudulent behavior and this legislation is just an attempt to create lucrative contracts for political cronies. Despite sound arguments against the measure, advocating Senators pushed the measure forward, and the private contracts will be awarded to implement it.
Public safety, crime and violence were addressed in numerous bills. Senate Bill 2680 adds domestic violence as grounds for divorce after a very high-profile effort to revive it from an apparent death in the House. The Department of Public Safety budget will fund a trooper school during the fall. This measure was one of the more urgent situations before us. The number of troopers on the roads has dwindled dramatically. We also passed a measure that will increase penalties for crimes against law enforcement officers, firefighters or emergency medical personnel if it is established that the crime is predicated on the victim’s profession. Victims of rape or sexual assault will be protected for two years from contact by their attackers who have completed their sentences, thanks to House Bill 1356. The Senate also passed measures that require examination of a DUI offender’s previous record before sentencing, and expanded the allowable methods of state execution to include the gas chamber, electrocution and firing squad.
While no new education funding formula was presented to us for action during the regular session, we have been assured that select legislators have been made aware of the plans thus far. We did fund K-12 public education at a $37 million cut from the current year. Ironically, a School Recognition Program, which provides incentives for A and B rated schools or schools that have shown significant improvement from year to year, was fully funded at $20 million. Community colleges and universities also suffered similar cuts – we anticipate sharp increases in tuition and other costs of college as the result.
There is no way to overemphasize the coming severe effects of dramatic budget cuts that were put in place this year. One legislative leader referred to the budget cuts as “campaign promises” to reduce the size of government. We do know that agencies are making plans to lay off hundreds of state employees – from all levels of government. The lack of state revenues to fund essential services is the direct result of the millions of dollars of corporate tax giveaways that have been underway since 2012. There seemed to be bipartisan support to postpone another big corporate tax giveaway scheduled to begin taking effect at the first of 2018, but to no avail. When fully implemented, we expect a revenue reduction of over $410 million per year.
We are in a budget crisis, and, unfortunately, we took no action during the recent session to address that crisis.
All measures and actions of the legislative session are available on the legislative website: www.legislature.ms.gov. The site also offers access to review the daily actions of the chambers under Legislation/Daily Action Reports. Video archives of floor debates on specific bills are available from Mississippi College School of Law on their website at www.law.mc.edu, Simply click on Library/Legislative History Project to view the videos.
I can always be reached by cell phone at (662) 224-4126, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/senatorbillstone or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. My home mailing address is 200 Johnson Park, Holly Springs, MS 38635.