By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant signed three bills into law Wednesday designed to curb union activity in the state.
“Mississippi won’t tolerate any activity like intimidation,” said Bryant moments after a bills signing in his office attended by Speaker Philip Gunn, Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.
He added, “We wouldn’t allow someone to block an entrance to a business or intimidate that business into allowing union membership. I think it’s important to let them know that this administration, this Legislature, is not supporting any unions of any type at any time in Mississippi’s business or public sector.”
Turner and Collins chair their respective Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committees where the bills originated.
Collins said the legislation is important to the whole state, but especially to Northeast Mississippi because of Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Blue Springs. There have been efforts to unionize other auto manufacturing plants in the South, including Nissan in Canton.
• Prohibist protests and demonstrations that blocked entrance and exit to a business or residence.
• Prohibits the intimidation of a business by a union.
• Prohibits local government from passing laws that would enhance likelihood of a company unionizing.
“This levels the playing field and puts employees and employers on the same playing field,” said Turner, who said the legislation “reaffirms more than anything else that Mississippi is a right to work state” where people cannot be forced to join a union.
Opponents of the legislation during the 2014 session said the bills were not needed. Mississippi is already a right to work state and union activity is minimal at best.
They said supporters of the legislation are not interested in a level playing field, but want to ensure unions remain weak in the state. In both the House and Senate, the Republican majorities voted down amendments that would protect an employee from retaliation by the employer for engaging in union activity.
The amendment was defeated by a voice vote in the Senate and by 63-57 in the House.
Byrant said Mississippi’s minimal union activity is a major economic development incentive to companies looking to expand.
The June 3 election where state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran most likely will produce the largest Republican Party primary turnout in the state’s history.
In the 2012 Republican Party primary for president, 294,100 people voted in the election won by Mitt Romney. People voting in the Republican primary that year far outpaced those voting the same day in the Democratic primary, though that is no surprise since Barack Obama was unopposed in his bid for re-election and there was no significant statewide race on the Dems’ side.
But 2012 is thus far the exception.
Republicans have made large strides in the state in recent years. Mississippi is viewed as one of the most dependable red states, but in party primary elections more people generally still turn out to vote for Democrats than Republicans. This trend should change as more local politicians run as Republican, leaving the traditional Democratic camp. Thus far, though, it has not.
Even in the 2011 statewide elections, more people (by about 33,500) voted for governor on the Democratic side where two little-known and relatively unfunded candidates battled than on the Republican side that featured well-known and well-funded Phil Bryant, who was the eventual winner in the November general election.
In that 2011 Republican gubernatorial primary, 289,788 people voted.
In the 2008 presidential party primaries,145,485 turned out on the Republican side compared to 423,113 on the Democratic side where Hillary Clinton and Obama were vying. Later that year in Mississippi in the general election, though, Republican John McCain thrashed the future president.
The point being, a vast majority of Mississippians are prone to vote Republican when they look at the Democratic and Republican candidates side-by-side and look at where each stands on the issues and the beliefs of both. But, as of yet, it has not been proven that a vast majority of Mississippians are prone to vote Republican just for the sake of voting.
The McDaniel/Cochran campaign has the potential to attract many newcomers to the Republican Party primary. The race, it appears by the number of television commercials already being aired and the animosity already being displayed by both campaigns, will be hotly contested. And there is no party primary on the Democratic side of any significance. Cochran, of course, is the sixth-term incumbent and deeply entrenched as part of the state Republican Party organization. McDaniel is the upstart, the Tea Party favorite. Now, in many instances, Tea Party members have been long-time, entrenched Republicans. But in other instances, Tea Party members, although socially and fiscally conservative, have never identified with the Republican Party, other than to vote for the Republican candidate with whom they felt most closely aligned. Many of these people have become politically active for the first time thanks to the Tea Party, though they have been long-time Republican voters.
The McDaniel-Cochran race is quickly morphing into a contest between those Tea Party members and the state’s Republican Party establishment, or GOP old guard. After all, the Barbours, as Republican establishment as can be found, are running an independent group touting Cochran and speaking rather despairingly of McDaniel and of groups supporting him.
Haley Barbour called the national Tea Party-affiliated groups supporting McDaniel “out-of-state phonies.” The former governor – the most prolific political fundraiser in the state’s history – was never averse to out-of-state support when he was campaigning.
Many others associated with the state’s Republican Party establishment also have gone after McDaniel and his supporters with a particular zeal. The establishment Republicans have depended on the Tea Party-like voters – many of whom are supporting McDaniel – to turn Mississippi into one of the most dependable red states. They will continue to need that support whether McDaniel wins or loses.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant says he talks to other governors across the nation who envy his successes in getting his agenda passed through the Legislature.
Part of that success can be attributed to the fact the Republican Bryant and the Republican leadership of the Legislature are of like minds and have many of the same goals, such as building up the state’s reserves and passing socially conservative legislation.
During the just-completed session, legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks, to provide religious protection for people from state actions, to incorporate In God We Trust We Trust into the state seal and to drug test welfare recipients were examples of socially conservative legislation that Bryant embraced. And the budget approved by the Legislature fills the state’s rainy day fund to the statutory limit of $409 million.
Bryant said, “I am very pleased the Legislature has heeded my call” to fill the state’s reserve funds and to limit the use of one-time money to fund recurring expenses.
Many believe the most significant issue of the 2014 session centered about public safety and changes to the criminal justice system.
To that end, way back last August in the heat of a typical summer day at the annual Neshoba County Fair’s political speeches, Bryant boldly proclaimed that the focus of the 2014 session would be public safety.
After the fact, many would say he was right.
The Legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice proposal that officials estimate will save the state’s Department of Corrections $266 million in projected spending over a 10-year period. Those savings are achieved by, among other things, giving judges more authority to impose alternative sentences like house arrest or drug court while at the same time ensuring violent criminals serve at least 50 percent of their sentence.
Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, had the ability to lead on the issue in a way others might not have been able to because of his law enforcement background.
But when Bryant made those statements about focusing on public safety in the 2014 session, a task force created in the 2013 session as a result of legislation authored by House Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, already was meeting. And it was the recommendations of the task force, embraced by Bryant, but also by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, that became the criminal justice changes the Legislature ultimately adopted and the governor signed into law.
“I believe we have taken strong steps to protect Mississippi communities,” Bryant said of the legislation.
Besides changes to the criminal justice system, the Legislature also, at Bryant’s urging, provided an additional $20 million for the Department of Public Safety to train and equip new Highway Patrol troopers, to upgrade the state Crime Lab and to purchase other equipment.
But legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, have been critical of the financial management of Public Safety’s leadership team put in place by Bryant. The increased funding was provided with the stipulation that the Legislature has more oversight of Public Safety.
“We need troopers who are adequately equipped on the road, so the agency’s budget was increased,” Reeves said. “However, it is imperative that the taxpayers feel their money is being spent wisely, and I am proud of the additional controls placed on DPS management.”
The governor’s proposal to create a “strike team” consisting of law enforcement from numerous agencies working together to address specific criminal problems, did not survive the legislative process.
Health care defeat
Perhaps, the most glaring defeat of a gubernatorial proposal during the 2014 session was of Bryant’s plan to increase funding to federally qualified community health centers across the state and to develop new primary care clinics to improve access to health care.
The plan would be, at least in part, an alternative to expanding Medicaid as is allowed under federal law to provide coverage to primarily the working poor. Bryant and the Republican leadership of the Legislature have opposed all aspects of the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion.
Bryant blamed the demise of his proposal to enhance the community health centers on the fact that many legislators are not familiar with the clinics that already receive a combination of federal and state funds to provide primary care services, including to people who have no health care insurance and little, if any, ability to pay.
Bryant conceded he did not know that much about the clinics until he started looking at the issues surrounding health care access.
“We will try again next year” to receive increased funding, the governor said.
During the session the first-term governor also proved willing to compromise. At one point, the governor said he thought all future teacher pay raises should be based on merit, but later said that an across-the-board teacher pay raise and a performance-based salary increase are “not mutually exclusive.”
He has embraced legislation heading to his desk that will provide teachers a $2,500 raise during the next two years and after that provide the opportunity for teachers to receive annual bonuses based on school performance.
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The business community heard about plans to grow the state’s creative economy and was told to be creative in growing its own businesses Thursday during the annual meeting of the Mississippi Economic Council.
More than 2,000 business people from across the state heard Gov. Phil Bryant and others talk about enhancing focus on the state’s creative economy – whether it be the music industry or other segments of the arts – during 2014. Bryant said during the annual meeting of the state’s Chamber of Commerce that with no focus on the industry, 60,000 people already are employed in jobs related to the creative economy.
“Sixty thousand jobs is like having twelve Nissan plants in the state,” the governor said, pointing out attractions like the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in Tupelo and musicians like blues legend B.B. King and many others.
Bryant said the focus on the state’s creative economy will continue with various efforts in the coming months that he predicted would result in job growth.
Part of that effort is well-known Mississippi artists returning to their hometowns to perform at various festivals. Singer/songwriter Steve Azar, who has written multiple country music hits, such as “I Don’t Have to Be Me (Til Monday),” performed at the MEC event. He has recently moved from Nashville back to his hometown of Greenville to continue his music career.
The event’s keynote speaker, Peter Sims, an author and entrepreneur from San Francisco, told the state’s business leaders that creative changes in their company – even small ones – can pay large dividends.
Sims is author of “Little bets: How breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries.” He told of how former Apple founder Steve Jobs in the 1980s purchased a hardware company that as an offshoot developed the Pixar technology that transformed film animation, first with the movie “Toy Story.”
“We are all creative,” he said. “Everybody can do creative. It is a process.” He said it is a process that requires work and planning.
He quoted Alan Kay, a computer scientist who helped develop much of the Apple technology, saying “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Brent Christensen did not rule out the possibility of using legislation signed into law Thursday by Gov. Phil Bryant to try to entice Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper Tire to relocate its headquarters to Mississippi.
In response to questions, Christensen predicted that the tire manufacturer’s most modern and most efficient plant will be the Tupelo facility and “we would love to have more, but we will take it one step at a time.”
The first step, the state’s top economic developer said, is to finalize the state’s agreement to provide $20 million to lure Cooper to invest $140 million to modernize the Tupelo plant, which currently employs 1,600 people.
Legislation was passed during the just-completed session to authorize MDA to enter into an agreement to provide $20 million over a three-year period if Cooper commits to the modernization. As part of the agreement, ownership of the Cooper Tire buildings will be transferred to either the city of Tupelo or Lee County or both. Local governments are putting up $18 million.
The governor has yet to sign the Cooper legislation, though he is expected to.
The bill he signed Thursday would allow a company that moves a national or regional headquarters to Mississippi and creates at least 20 jobs to receive tax credits “equal to the actual relocation costs.”
The cumulative amount of the tax credits in any one year for all relocations could not exceed $1 million, though the tax credits could be carried forward for multiple years.
There has been speculation the Legislature in the past that Cooper was eyeing a relocation to Tupelo, though company officials have denied those rumors. Christensen stressed that there are no talks underway with Cooper on the possibility of a headquarters relocation.
He said the priority is finalizing the deal on the modernization of the Tupelo plant to “show them what a great partner we are … work up to the full marriage proposal.”
The headquarters legislation was one of three bills Bryant signed Thursday that he and others said would help spur economic development in the state.
He signed the Taxpayer Fairness Act on Thursday afternoon at the conclusion of the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting in Jackson. MEC had lobbied for the legislation, which makes several changes to the tax code – some of which are business-specific while others could impact individual taxpayers.
Bryant and MEC officials said the legislation “evens the playing field” for the taxpayers, though opponents contended the result will be to make it more difficult to collect taxes from large corporations doing business in Mississippi.
The legislation will enhance the burden of the Department of Revenue to prove additional taxes are owed, and in general would make it easier for a taxpayer to appeal an adverse tax ruling. It also will lower the penalty on back taxes owed to the state.
The Department of Revenue at one point said many of the proposed changes could cost the state general fund up to $100 million per year.
On Thursday, Bryant, who appoints the tax commissioner, said he does not believe the legislation’s cost to the state would be that much, but that “if it is not fair to the taxpayers, it is not worth $100 million per year.”
Another bill Bryant signed will result in a reduction of the tax for pharmaceutical companies that have inventories in the state.
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Government-run health insurance – Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program – are picking up the slack to provide insurance coverage to more Mississippi children.
A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study released Thursday found that from 2008 to 2012 the number of Mississippi children covered by private health insurance, including plans provided by their parents’ employer, has dropped from 49.8 percent to 45.2 percent, But the number of children covered by CHIP and Medicaid increased from 37.4 percent to 47.1 percent. That resulted in a net decrease in the percentage of uninsured children in the state from 12.9 percent to 7.7 percent.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a national non-profit that advocates for health care-related issues.
The study concluded that more than 61,400 Mississippi children – 1 out of every 13 – are not insured.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said because of Medicaid and CHIP there is no reason for children to go without health insurance.
“It is just a matter of letting the parents know,” said Holland, viewed as one of the Legislature’s more knowledgeable members on health-related issues.
Holland said he hears from parents all the time concerned with the fact they can’t afford to take a sick child to the doctor.
“Even in a prosperous county like Lee that happens,” he said. “I immediately help them sign up for Medicaid. I have helped hundreds….
“You get a sick kid and don’t treat him, look at what you can get…There is nothing Christian about that.”
As of March 2014, 333,782 of 662,433 Medicaid enrollees were children, while an addition 68,805 children were enrolled in CHIP.
Medicaid is for poor children, poor pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly. CHIP covers children up to 209 percent of the federal poverty level if their parents’ income is too high to qualify for Medicaid. Both are funded through federal-state matches, though in Mississippi the federal government pays the bulk of the costs of both programs.
The reduction in the number of uninsured children in Mississippi mirrors the nation. Nationwide, the number of uninsured children has declined from 9.8 percent percent to 7.5 percent. But, nationwide, while Medicaid and CHIP enrollment for children is increasing, the percentages are still much lower than in Mississippi.
Nationwide, the number of children on government-funded health care programs has increased from 25.8 percent percent to 33.6 percent while the number on private health insurance plans has dropped from 64.5 percent to 59 percent.
“Reducing the number of children who lack health insurance has been a focus of state and federal policy-makers for years, and it’s encouraging to see that tremendous progress has been made,” Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a news release.
“More American children now have stable, affordable health coverage, and that means they can get the care they need to learn and grow.”
The trend of children being switched from private or employer-based health insurance is matching what is occurring in the adult population in Mississippi.
A 2013 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in 2000, 1.57 million Mississippians, or 64.5 percent of the population, including family dependents, received their health insurance through an employer.
In 2011, that number had dropped to 52.1 percent, or 1.34 million state residents.
Other studies put the percentage of Mississippians receiving health insurance through their employer at an even lower number.
Mississippi is among the states that have opted not to expand Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor as is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Under the program, people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (about $15,000 for an individual or about $32,000 for a family of four) would be eligible to be covered under the Medicaid expansion.
The federal law allows people earning more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level to sign up for private insurance through exchanges where they can obtain federal financial assistance.
It has been estimated by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy that more than 172,000 adult Mississippians earn less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level or less than about $12,000 annually, thus, not qualifying for the private health insurance subsidies, but not eligible for Medicaid as long as the state opts not to participate in the expansion.
In the midst of the hurly burly of the final day of the 2014 legislative session last week, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, made a significant ruling.
But a written version of the speaker’s ruling is not available. The ruling, which Gunn halted House proceedings to contemplate overnight, was made after lunch the following day in a matter of seconds from the speaker’s podium.
The ruling came on an inquiry from Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who questioned whether a bill that would give $6,000 annually in the form of debit cards to some parents of special-needs children to pursue private school alternatives should require a two-thirds vote.
Section 66 of the Constitution states “no law granting a donation or gratuity in favor of any person or object shall be enacted except by concurrence of two-thirds of the members.”
Gunn ruled the legislation establishing the payments to the special-needs parents required only a simple majority vote because it was a legislative “policy issue.” He explained orally, but not in writing that “these particular schools would be fulfilling the function of educating children with special needs.”
There is no set procedure for how such inquiries are handled. But it was at least a bit unusual that Gunn asked Baria to provide in writing his views of why the vote should require a two-thirds super majority. In the past, normally in such instances in the House when the presiding officer has requested a written interpretation from a member, the speaker has responded in kind by providing in writing his ruling on the issue, and it is placed in the legislative journal.
In essence, Gunn said this particular issue did not rise to that level of requiring him to provide a written ruling even though he asked Baria to make his inquiry in writing. It should be pointed out that after Gunn’s ruling, which was viewed as controversial at least by some, the legislation could not even garner that simple majority to pass.
After the session ended, Gunn said that the special-needs legislation will not be an issue during the 2015 session, which will be an election year.
But at some point in the future, it most likely will be.
A significant number of Republicans support providing state vouchers to pay for students to attend private schools. Many public school advocates are adamantly opposed to taking money and, often the best students, out of the public schools.
Those people have on their side another state constitutional provision, Section 208, that many believe makes providing vouchers to private schools difficult. It states, “No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other education funds of this state, nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”
No doubt, some mighty good attorneys have the ability to twist words into a different meaning than what the average, everyday person believes they say. But it seems pretty clear the intent of the writers of the Constitution is to prevent public funds from going to any school that is “not a free school” regardless of whether it has a religious affiliation.
Accepting that as fact for the moment, then what alternative is there for supporters of vouchers? The answer might be to give money directly to parents for the sole purpose of using those funds to pay for a child’s education at a private school.
But requiring a two-thirds majority would make passage of such a controversial proposal very unlikely.
So at some point in the future, Gunn’s unwritten ruling might be an issue again.
Baria’s reasons for believing it should be a two-thirds vote will be available for public consideration. The reason for Gunn’s ruling will not be.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or email@example.com.
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, and Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, agreed Monday on what many say were the two biggest issues of the just completed legislative session – changes to the criminal justice system and a teacher pay raise – but differed sharply on Medicaid expansion.
Blount, House Public Property Committee chairman, and Gibson, House Judiciary B chairman, provided a recap to the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute/Capitol press corps luncheon of the just completed legislative session.
Blount questioned the wisdom of refusing billions in federal funds under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level or about $15,000 per year. Gipson again reiterated, “Obamacare has fallen apart at the seams” and said the state is wise not to participate.
Both said changes to the criminal justice system that came out of Gipson’s committee will help curb the growth in the prison budget while ensuring violent criminals are locked up longer. One key way the bill has the potential to save money is giving judges more sentencing options, such as house arrests and drug courts.
Blount said the legislation has the potential to be the most significant of the current four-year term. Gipson has said it has the potential to save the state $266 million over a 10-year period.
On the issue of the teacher pay raise, both said they supported the $2,500 pay raise over a two year period. But both want to make sure that when the third year of the raise takes effect – a yearly bonus for faculty and staff for school performance goals – that good teachers in C, D and F schools are rewarded.
“We don’t need financial incentives for teachers to leave those districts,” Blount said
Gipson,who credited the early support of Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, for passage of the pay raise, said, “We shouldn’t punish a teacher just for being in a C, D or F district.”
On the Medicaid issue, Blount said the $155 million in state funds already committed to three malls being built in the Jackson area, near Memphis and on the Gulf Coast would have paid the state’s share for the first six years of Medicaid expansion to match more than $1.2 billion annually in federal funds.
“Medicaid expansion is not going away,” he said, predicting local health care providers would ultimately become more vocal about the need to accept the federal funds that more than half the states already are accepting.
“People I represent don’t want to be on Medicaid,” he said. “They want a job. They want their own insurance.”
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Teachers and some state employees got pay raises under the budget passed during the final days of the 2014 legislative session that ended Wednesday night, but some say little was done to dig local school districts out of the financial hole they fell into in 2008.
It was in 2008 that the economy plummeted, forcing then-Gov. Haley Barbour to initiate budget cuts. His first round of cuts focused primarily on kindergarten through 12th grade education.
From that point, education funding steadily declined. In recent years, it has started to improve.
But even with $65 million added to the budget during the just-completed session for a $1,500 across-the-board pay raises for the state’s about 30,000 school teachers, K-12 education still has a long way to go to recover from prior budget cuts.
The $2.4 billion budget (an increase of about $85 million over the previous year) provides $114 million less in direct funds to local school districts through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program than was provided in 2008, according to an analysis by the Parents Campaign, a public education advocacy group.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, questioned whether local school districts would ever get a sizable increase in state funds if they did not during the 2014 legislative session. Revenue has been growing by more than 5 percent for the past three years and legislators received an additional $250 million to appropriate late in the session due to the growth in state tax collections.
“We’re getting to the point where the cuts cannot be explained by benign neglect,” Bryan said on the Senate floor. The budget passed by the Legislature leaves the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, $255 million short of full funding based on the formula in state law. Since 2008, MAEP has been underfunded about $1.5 billion.
During the just-completed session, legislators hinted that if revenue continues to increase there could be an opportunity to begin a phase-in of full funding of the MAEP in the coming years.
“I think there will be an opportunity to get there,” Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said of full funding.
But at the same time, some legislators are saying an income tax cut should be considered during the 2015 session, which will be an election year.
The budget passed during the 2014 session provides $15 million (an additional $5 million) for the literacy program passed last year requiring most students to read on grade level before advancing past the third grade. It level-funds pilot pre-kindergarten programs at $6 million even though funding for early childhood education was supposed to be increased this session.
While some are upset that the budget does not provide additional funding for education, others, especially the Republican leadership, tout the “structural” soundness of the budget.
“We finally did what Mississippi families do every day – we are spending what we are taking in and putting more away in savings,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate.
House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the budget fills the state’s rainy day fund to its statutory limit of $409 million, limits the expenditure of one-time funds on recurring expenses and takes care of the priorities.
The budget sets aside funds to provide pay raises to state employees earning less than $30,000 who have not had a raise in four years. Plus, it gives agency directors the authority to give raises to other employees who have not had one in four years if they can find money in their budget to do it.
The $6 billion general fund budget is about $200 million more than what was appropriated by the 2013 Legislature.
“I have been talking for 11 years about getting to the point of a structurally balanced budget,” Reeves said. “This is the first year in over a decade we can say we have done that.”
The universities are receiving an increase of $32.9 million to $746.9 million (counting funding for the University Medical Center and the various agriculture-related programs at Mississippi State and Alcorn State) while the community colleges are receiving an additional $11.1 million to $258.1 million.
For perhaps the first time in several years, almost no agency received an overall cut of any consequence. Budgets for the Division of Medicaid and Corrections – two of the fastest growing areas of state government – continue to grow.
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Legislature faced a litany of diverse issues during the just-completed 2014 session.
Lawmakers wound up business Wednesday night after a chaotic final few days to end the 86-day session.
Here is a recap of some of the key issues debated and either passed or rejected:
The Legislature approved a proposal to provide teachers a $2,500 pay raise over a two-year period, starting on July 1 with a $1,500 annual bump.
Starting in the third year, the legislation calls for teaches and faculty to have an opportunity to receive annual bonuses based on school performance, though many cite potential problems with the school-based merit program and say the Legislature is likely to revisit the issue before it goes into effect.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was the first member of the legislative leadership to propose a teacher pay raise. He did so after his chamber during the 2013 session passed an amendment offered on the floor by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, to give teachers a $5,000 raise. That amendment was killed later in the process in 2013 by the legislative leadership, but it was the genesis for Gunn’s proposal in 2014.
Gunn’s original proposal called for veteran teachers to achieve what was described as easily obtainable benchmarks to receive the raise, but they were taken out by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Senate leadership, who offered their own plan which largely shaped the final legislation.
Criminal justice reform
Efforts to make changes to the criminal justice system in an attempt to hold down prison costs received bipartisan support and already has been signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.
The proposal, the result of recommendations of a task force made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, local elected officials and others, was designed to give judges more discretion to use sentencing alternatives, such as house arrest in some instances, while giving longer sentences for certain serious crimes.
The new law defines what is a violent crime and ensures that people convicted of violent crimes must serve at least 50 percent of their sentence before being eligible for release, based on good behavior, while nonviolent offenders must serve at least 25 percent.
It has been estimated that the plan will save the state $266 million over a 10-year period.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, was one of the leaders in an effort to create a program to allow parents of special-needs children to receive $6,000 annually to pursue private education options. Collins’ original proposal did not cap the number of students who would be eligible to receive the funds if they left the public schools.
Some argued the proposal would put a big burden on the state general fund. Collins and other advocates for the program proposed a pilot project for 500 parents.
Still, some said they opposed the precedent of giving “vouchers” for students to attend private schools. Collins maintained the public schools option was not working for some special-needs parents.
The proposal was defeated the final day of the session in the House even after the speaker ruled it required a simple majority to pass, not the two-thirds majority some members called for, citing the Constitution’s requirement for a supermajority when the Legislature provides a gift to a nonpublic entity or person.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which already has been signed into law by the governor, has received national attention. Soon after the program passed the Senate, it was compared to legislation that passed in Arizona that many said would allow businesses to deny services to gays or other groups based on religious grounds.
The Arizona law was vetoed and soon after the Mississippi Economic Council, among others, voiced concerns about passing legislation that could be viewed as a vehicle to discriminate against any group.
In the end, the legislation was changed to prevent the government from forcing someone to take actions against his or her religious beliefs. The proposal still has detractors, including those saying the new law could be used to conduct religious activities that would not be supported by a majority of Mississippians, such as certain religious groups refusing medical treatment for family members.
The new law also has language placing “In God We Trust” on the state seal.
The bond bill passed by the Legislature totals $199.9 million. The total amount is less than the amount of bonds the state will pay off during the coming year, meaning the total amount of state debt will be lowered from $4.1 billion to $3.9 billion.
Included in the bonds are $8 million ($20 million over three years) to help Cooper Tire in Tupelo modernize, $2.5 million to help build a Tammy Wynette Museum in Tremont to honor the county music legend and Itawamba County native, $500,000 for the William Faulkner/Union Heritage Museum in New Albany, and $250,000 for renovations at Okolona College in Chickasaw County.
Also in the bond package, universities will garner $92.8 million for building and renovation projects while community colleges will receive $23 million.
It looked until literally the final minutes of the 2014 session that the Legislature would approve a ban on texting while driving.
The proposal called for a $25 fine starting July 1, increasing to $100 a year later. The texting ban had passed both chambers by wide margins during the final days of the session, but late Wednesday as the House was preparing to adjourn the session for the year, Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, entered a motion to reconsider on the measure.
Efforts to table the motion and send the bill to the governor were defeated on a voice vote. Supporters could not garner the numbers needed to require a roll call vote.
Denny and others said when they originally voted for the measure they thought it applied only to drivers under the age of 18, which was the intent of the bill until it was changed in the process.
In 2013, the fight over whether to expand Medicaid to cover those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level – primarily the working poor – sent the Legislature into special session.
This year the issue was much less contentious. In 2014, there were unsuccessful votes on the House and Senate floor on whether to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid as is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act. But after the votes the issue went away for the 2014 session.
The Republican leadership continues to be adamantly opposed to expansion.
Judges, law enforcement
Agreement could not be reached on efforts to add judges and change chancery and circuit court districts to adhere to population shifts.
The Legislature did agree to add 16 assistant district attorneys statewide, including two in Northeast Mississippi districts.
It also appropriated funds to train 50 new Highway Patrol troopers, added funds for the state Crime Lab and for other law enforcement equipment. Overall, Public Safety received an increase of $15.5 million to $88.4 million with $12.9 million of the increase directed to the Highway Patrol.