HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS END OF SESSION REPORT
The 2017 Legislative session came to an abrupt halt on Wednesday, March 29, leaving a number of items on the table, including the funding bills for the Attorney General’s Office and the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The House stood firm in our resolve that the AGO would not be hampered from seeking justice from corporate bad actors who hurt Mississippians. Behind closed doors, offending language had been inserted into the agency appropriation bill that caused the bill to violate House rules. We offered the Senate a solution, but it was not accepted. House leadership chose to let the amended bill die on the calendar. The Senate added several hundred million in “pet” projects to the MDOT funding bill, so the House sent it back for further conference to remove those expenditures. Rather than accept these changes, the Senate chose to let the MDOT appropriation die.
The failure to agree on these two bills means that the Legislature will likely be called in for special session to address them. Some of us are hopeful that the special session will also include an opportunity for us to effectively address the issue of a lottery as a potential source of income for the state.
Much of the news over the last weeks of the session centered around budget cuts and reductions in appropriations for the coming fiscal year. In the end, the Governor had cut about $171 million from state agency budgets for FY2017. Legislative leadership subsequently cut about the same amount from the appropriation budgets for FY2018. Almost immediately, agencies began announcing employee firings.
The state is in a budget crisis. Legislative Republicans have termed this reduction in revenue and the ensuing budget cuts and employee firings a good thing because they campaigned on the promise of reducing the size of state government. Our position is that government provides vital services to MIssissippians. The ability to provide public safety, access to health care, a good public education, good roads and bridges, protections against natural disaster and other vital services are the essential components of a civilized society. While tax cuts can be good, they need to be targeted, and should result in promised job creation. Mississippi’s corporate tax cuts are not producing jobs.
Despite the dismal economic outlook and drastic budget cuts, Democrats did some good this session.
We voted in support of significant reforms in campaign finance reporting – candidates will no longer be allowed to take home their campaign war chests, nor will they be able to spend campaign donations on personal items. We approved an “omnibus” election reform measure that will clean up language in the current statutes and better conform the laws to modern technological capabilities.
House Bill 926 allows the University of Mississippi Medical Center to partner with health providers in the rural areas of the state to benefit citizens whose access to healthcare is under threat due to hospital closings.
House Bill 1089, the Rivers McGraw Act, establishes a pilot program for mental health courts to direct individuals to proper treatment rather than keep them in jails. The goal of the law is to help individuals seek help for addiction and other issues. It is named after a young man who took his own life, rather than face consequences of another DUI.
We supported House Bill 1226, the Capitol Complex bill, which diverts 2 percent of Jackson’s state sales taxes to infrastructure improvement in the area near the Capitol. The measure is designed to help Jackson fix aged and crumbling roads and infrastructure in the downtown area, heavily occupied by state government, with structures mostly exempt from property taxes. Jackson provides critical services including fire and police in the area. The Capitol Complex area includes the Capitol and surrounding government buildings as well as property around the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Jackson State University.
We concurred with Senate Bill 2680 which adds domestic violence as a grounds for divorce. This effort had stalled in the House and was revived as a direct result of citizen outcry. As we have noted before, our colleagues pay attention when Mississippians speak. We also passed a measure that provides for victims of sexual assault to be protected from contact by their perpetrators through a protective order which will last for two years after the assailant has served his or her sentence.
Another measure that passed during the session is a funding bill for a Trooper school. The lack of officers on the road had risen to emergency level. This should help fill the ranks of those who patrol our highways.
We also effectively blocked an effort to put the departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitative Services under the control of the governor rather than the professional boards that now oversee them. Likewise, we stopped a push to “reduce the footprint of government” by removing most state employees from civil service protections, which would have resulted in mass firings.
We also managed to defeat an effort to open the door to taxpayer-funded education vouchers to be carried over state lines. With a measurable percentage of public school students trying to cope with the debilitating effects of dyslexia, we believe that the best solution to the issue is that necessary services should be offered in every school district.
The issue of a new school funding formula remained an elusive topic during the session because planning sessions were held behind closed doors, and rank-and-file members were only provided rumors as to the content of the EdBuild report. It is allegedly under preparation for roll out at a yet-to-be-determined time. The mystery and secrecy surrounding a subject as important as how we will fund our public education system is symptomatic of the manner in which legislative business has been conducted in Mississippi since 2012.
As Democrats, we will continue to urge greater involvement of all members in the process and will work in bipartisan fashion to solve Mississippi’s big problems.