Teacher pay, justice reform biggest achievements

other_state_govThis is the first of two stories recapping the 2014 Legislature. Monday’s story deals with the budget.

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:

Teacher pay

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.

Special-needs payments

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.

Religious freedom

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.

Bonds

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.

Texting

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.

Medicaid expansion

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.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com