Few achievements, unfinished business during this session
BY JEFF AMY and EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Before this year’s session, Mississippi legislators set an ambitious agenda that could have shaped public policy for a generation.
Leaders said they wanted to rewrite the public school funding formula and develop a long-term plan to spend more to maintain highways and bridges. There was even talk of rewriting the tax code.
None of this came to pass as they left a three-month legislative session of modest achievements and unfinished business.
“We have not accomplished very much,” said Democratic Rep. Tyrone Ellis of Starkville. “Out of the 38 years I’ve been here, it’s probably been the worst.”
Lawmakers wrote a budget that cut funding significantly for many agencies, as a stagnant economy and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tax cuts kept state revenue on a downward path.
The Republican-controlled Legislature must return in special session before July 1 to set budgets for the Department of Transportation and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
House and Senate leaders never brought forth a final proposal for changes to school funding, after the report they commissioned suggested increasing state spending and redistributing money in ways that could have forced about 30 property-rich districts to raise property taxes. Many lawmakers rejected that call to increase local tax contributions, but said they wanted to enact other recommendations. These recommendations could have created a need for at least $120 million of additional state spending. None were approved.
Not only were there fewer big bills this session; there was less legislation overall. In each of the previous four years, lawmakers sent at least 385 bills to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. Only 189 survived this year, more than 100 of which were yearly spending bills.
The reduced workload was by design. House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, told committee leaders to bring fewer bills to the floor. Except for a failed attempt to financially punish universities that refuse to fly the state flag because it contains the Confederate battle emblem, legislators avoided the kinds of contentious social issues that previously tied them in knots — gay marriage, abortion, guns.
“Compared to other sessions, it was just about noncontroversial before we got to transportation,” said Republican Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn.
A dispute between the House and Senate killed the transportation budget in the session’s final days. Gunn said Senate leaders refused to discuss long-term plans to finance highways and bridges, as business leaders were pushing lawmakers to do. Reeves said House leaders were married to a concept he called unconstitutional — the voluntary collection of tax from items sold online.
There were some achievements. Lawmakers voted to make it harder for public officials to spend campaign cash on themselves, a year after a similar bill died in the House.
“I hope that will restore some confidence that the public has in their public servants, that they’re down here serving for the right reasons, not for any monetary gain,” said Gunn, who made the measure a priority.
Legislators touted other achievements popular among conservative voters.
They increased penalties on people who commit crimes against police, firefighters and emergency responders, even when they’re off the job and out of uniform.
They changed Mississippi’s death penalty law in an attempt to make it harder for lawsuits to block executions. They banned sanctuary cities and other policies that might help people who have entered the country illegally.
Lawmakers also carved out $20 million to pay bonuses to teachers in schools with A and B academic ratings or schools that improved their ranking by a letter grade. They cobbled together enough money to train a class of state troopers.
Legislators made it easier for domestic violence victims to get divorces. They created a program to establish mental health courts in as many as 23 of the 82 counties. They set a program to track assets seized by police in alleged crimes.
They killed bills that would have mandated equal pay for women and men doing equal jobs. Democratic Rep. Sonya Williams Barnes of Gulfport said that was one of the session’s biggest disappointments.
“We had bills with bipartisan support that should have gone forward but died in committee,” she said. “It was good to see that both women and men supported these efforts. Just not enough or not the right ones at this time.”
Legislators set a plan to spend millions to improve pothole-riddled streets and replace cracked water lines near state government buildings in Jackson, where tax-exempt public property has strained the city budget. Reeves noted that this bill had broad bipartisan support from lawmakers across Mississippi.
“It’s a prime example of the way legislation should work — both the House and the Senate working together, Republicans and Democrats working together,” Reeves said.
But inaction ruled on statewide transportation funding, as well as on changes to the school funding formula. Lawmakers could tackle those big generational challenges in the upcoming special session, in next year’s session, or not at all.
Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy and Emily Wagster Pettus at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .