Capitol Concerns: 2011 Legislature faces full and daunting agenda

By Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-day series on the 2011 Legislature. On Monday, the Daily Journal looks at legislators who might be candidates for higher offices in the coming year.

JACKSON – The 2011 legislative session will not be one for the faint of heart.
The scheduled 90-day session, which begins Tuesday, will be full of issues. And the looming 2011 state elections will affect every decision.
“It is not going to be without a fight,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, chair of the Public Health Committee.
The fights could come in various forms – over the budget, over legislative redistricting, over anti-immigration proposals, over developing a federally mandated health care exchange, over efforts to adopt policy statements in opposition to some of the laws enacted by the U.S. Congress.
“I think it will be the busiest session I have seen in my seven – going on eight – years in the House,” said Rep. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo.
The primary issue, which will shape all others, is the budget. The state is reeling from an unprecedented two-year period in which tax collections were less than the previous year.
The state is now experiencing modest revenue growth, but still faces a challenge because of the loss of more than $700 million in one-time money – primarily federal stimulus funds – that covered recurring expenses.
During the past three years most state agencies have experienced double-digit cuts, and more are expected this year. House and Senate legislative leaders, however, have adopted a proposal that would leave funding level for kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
Tollison said the state cannot afford any more cuts to education.
“We are going to erode all the progress we have made,” he said. “In my area, we had schools that had to eliminate arts and music programs. You might not think that is a big deal, but those students will not have those opportunities. That is sad.”
“The question is, if we have to cut more in education, what will be next?”
Other budget concerns exist, such as funding the state’s community mental health centers, many of which face possible closing without state help.
Another key budget issue is the need to provide additional funds to meet a lawsuit settlement to bolster the state’s often belittled foster care system.
Efforts also will be made to fund a new Highway Patrol class to replace a large number of retiring troopers, and to increase funds for universities and community colleges.
Part of the debate will center on how much of the state’s reserve funds to use to offset the loss of stimulus funds. The budget proposals presented by legislative leaders and Gov. Haley Barbour are not that far apart in terms of using reserve funds.
“I am really concerned about Medicaid, Human Services, Mental Health – helping those entities,” said Rep. Noal Akins, R-Oxford. “I am almost a yes vote on anything that comes up on those.”
Most of those agencies have faced either layoffs or furloughs during the recent economic woes.
Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said he wants to provide additional funds to community colleges that do much of the work force training.
Overall, Brown said, “This will be the worst year for finances,” he said. “Plus, on top of that we have to do reapportionment. It will make for a double-whammy, tough session.”
The Legislature must redraw the 122 House districts and 52 Senate districts to reflect population shifts found by the 2010 Census. Redistricting normally is controversial because of the possibility incumbents will be thrown into the same district.
The task is more difficult this year because it must be done quickly to provide the U.S. Justice Department time to approve the redistricting plan before August primary elections.
If legislators cannot agree on a redistricting plan, the issue might be thrown into court with the likelihood that they will have to run two years in a row.
“I hope they get it worked out so they don’t have to run two years in a row,” said Akins. “Elections have gotten so expensive. It is almost to the point where a poor man cannot get into politics.”
If those two hot-button issues – redistricting and the budget – are not enough, there will be others. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and other members of the Senate are expected to push through that chamber an anti-immigration bill similar to the controversial Arizona law, which has been partially struck down by the courts.
That proposal could cause controversy in the House, where some key committee chairs are likely to oppose it.
The Legislature will probably take up the creation of an exchange that allows people to shop for health insurance. If the state does not establish an exchange, the federal government will, according to the guidelines of the health reform law passed in 2009.
It is likely legislation will be introduced to protest federal laws passed by a Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress.
And as usual, other issues will emerge, such as proposals to strengthen laws preventing cruelty to animals and to toughen regulations on so-called payday lending operations.
“It’s an election year so I think everybody will be on their best behavior and try to get a budget completed before the end of the session,” said Tollison. “I think you will see a high degree of cooperation.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-31319 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.