2018 lawmaking season coasts toward a ho-hum close

Published 9:26 am Tuesday, March 27, 2018

By Charlie Mitchell

No spark. Another session fizzles toward adjournment. No great ideas. No bold initiatives. No coordinated strategies to make Mississippi better.

There were fireworks on the seek-to-serve scene, what with the resignation of U.S. Sen Thad Cochran and the decision of U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper not to seek another term, but calm prevailed in the marbled chambers where Mississippi lawmakers huddle from January through March.

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OK, there was the moment Rep. Charles Young Jr., D-Meridian, did wave a handgun while arguing against the wisdom of allowing people to pack at college sporting events. Otherwise and without actually counting, it’s a safe guess that 98 percent of actions were to commend high school teams, name various buildings or stretches of highway or mourn the passing of solid citizens. (Not saying that’s not important.)

The notion of a state lottery came and went and came again before going again. Eventually, Mississippi will join states that add revenue from scratch-offs and drawings to their income streams. The state already banks $130 million annually from 28 state-regulated casinos, so a moral argument against a lottery is thin, at best.

When Vegas-style gambling was first authorized in selected counties 28 years ago, predictions were that Mississippi’s revenue woes had been solved. Almost three decades later, $6.2 billion has poured into public accounts — and state revenue still falls short of approved allocations almost every year, sometimes several times per year.

Last year, Gov. Phil Bryant invited lawmakers to explore adding a lottery. A bill to do so has been introduced almost every year by state Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, and was again this year. It failed, but videos of Mississippians lined up to buy tickets in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana will eventually be too much for lawmakers to resist. Multi-state Powerball tickets can be purchased online, too, but Mississippi (one of only six states not participating) doesn’t get a nickel when a state resident buys one (or 100).

The Legislature did make national headlines for passing America’s most restrictive law on terminating pregnancies. Within hours after Gov. Bryant signed the ban on performing an abortion after 15 weeks (the average gestation is 40 weeks), a federal judge suspended enforcement pending a full review.

Abortion is very much on the minds of lawmakers every year, responding to the core and dominant belief in Mississippi that states do, in fact, have a duty to protect life. Almost every tactic has failed to earn a judicial blessing, but one significant provision has become law. Procedures must be performed by licensed physicians.

The abortion rate in Mississippi is 6.4 percent of pregnancies or about 10 per weekday. Bryant’s consistent pledge has been to make Mississippi “the safest place in America for an unborn child.” Once born, however, there’s a troubling statistic: Mississippi is the least safe place once a child is born. In proportion to population, more Mississippi children die during their first year of life than in any other state.

If there was a surprise during the session, it was when a motion by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, effectively killed a carefully crafted plan to move the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan into the dustbin. The Republican leadership has chafed under MAEP’s rarely funded funding formulas and greased the skids for a new model of allocating money to K-12 students. Eight Republicans joined all Democrats in sending the bill back for more study, leaving Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves frustrated, to put it mildly.

Overall the tenor was, as it has been in past sessions, to be reactive.

As has long been observed, Mississippi would be bankrupt many times over without the injections of regular and special purpose dollars Congress pumps into Mississippi. The rate is closing in on $3 back for every dollar the feds extract from state taxpayers.

Still, the attitude of the Legislature is to be an outlier — and love it, often expressed in “show bills.” For example, when New York City considered limiting soda sizes, lawmakers here rallied in righteous indignation, passing a decree that no town here could ban Big Gulps.

Mississippi’s values are different, and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a session filled with invigorating innovations — not to expand government, but to be both bold and creative in confronting the challenges of poverty, of crime, of decay that the state’s people face every day?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a less defensive posture in the Capitol, to see problems defined and solutions tailored?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Maybe next year.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.