By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The issues have been clearly defined for the Mississippi Legislature’s 2013 session, which begins at noon Tuesday.
Most believe the primary focus of the session will be education – particularly charter schools and possibly other Republican proposals dealing with school choice options.
Part of that focus will be funding for what has been a perennially underfunded kindergarten through university system.
Democrats also will look for ways to force a vote before both the House and Senate on the proposal to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That vote may have to come through the amendment process since bills to expand Medicaid are expected to be killed in committee by the Republican leadership.
All this will occur against a backdrop of the second year for Republicans to control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since the 1800s.
Even with Republicans controlling both chambers, key pieces of legislation died during the 2012 session. Those items included a proposal to allow charter schools to operate on public funds outside many of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools and legislation to issue bonds to finance long-term construction projects.
Both are expected to be major issues during this year’s session.
Last year legislative redistricting hung over the heads of the members for most of the session. How districts will be changed to match population shifts in the 2010 census was resolved late in the 2012 session. There has been speculation that redistricting limited controversy during the 2012 session because members feared the leadership could punish them by drawing unfavorable districts if they caused too many problems
Whether that was the case, Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, the leader of the minority Democratic Party, said, “I think it will be a hard-driven session. The people up here are nice folks, but we can certainly disagree about politics and public policy.”
Going into the session, there already has been a bit of controversy. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, took the unusual step of removing Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, a charter school opponent, from the Education Committee without her consent and replacing her with Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, a charter school advocate. Last year charter school legislation was killed in the Education Committee by a one-vote margin.
Since that removal, another spot has opened up on the Education Committee with a member’s resignation and Whittington has asked to be placed back on the panel. Gunn has not yet filled the slot.
Of the upcoming session, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said, “Our system is designed such that it is supposed to be difficult to get a law passed, and we expect that to continue. The Senate has a strong group of committee chairmen that were selected on a bipartisan basis to help pass good, strong, conservative legislation, and we expect that to continue also.”
Going into the session there are key differences in Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget and the budget proposed by legislative leaders on the Budget Committee.
The deadline for the Legislature to pass a budget will not be until early
April – near the end of the 90-day session.
The legislative leadership’s proposal leaves more funds in reserves, but does not deal with some issues addressed in the governor’s proposal, such as $3 million for early childhood education and $42 million for the Department of Human Services as part of a settlement of a lawsuit dealing with the state’s foster care system.
• Members – 122
• Republicans – 64
• Democrats – 57
• African-Americans – 37
• Women – 21
One vacancy exists in a district deemed to be favorable for Republican victory.
• Members – 52
• Republicans – 31
• Democrats – 19
• African-Americans – 10
• Women – 7
Two vacancies exist in districts deemed to be favorable for Democratic victories.
Follow Bobby Harrison on Twitter @BobbyHarrison9 for updates.