Legislative Session Recap

Since the 2016 Session of the Mississippi Legislature ended a couple weeks ago, I have taken some time to reflect on my first Session’s ups and downs. Despite what you may have read in the papers, the Session was productive on many fronts. We worked to foster economic growth and personal liberty, improve education, and reduce the burden of government on taxpaying citizens. Major legislation was adopted in several areas. It’s long, but you can skim the following summary for specific bills of interest:

Fiscally Conservative Budget, Pro-Growth Tax Relief

That old saying, “You can’t believe everything you read in the papers,” applies in spades to much of the reporting on the state budget. The Fiscal Year 2017 State Support budget totals approximately $6.3 billion. Public schools will continue to receive more than $2.5 billion, including $2.2 billion for the school funding formula. Universities and community colleges were essentially funded at current year levels, at $748.2 million and $264.7 million respectively. Most other agencies saw cuts – but the sky is not falling. This budget keeps us within our means, while forcing agencies to prioritize spending.

We also initiated some significant reforms in budgeting that will lead to more transparency and save tax dollars. Senate Bill 2362 eliminates interagency charges and frees up about $123 million of special funds from sixteen affected agencies that will now go to the General Fund. About $104 million in nonrecurring money will be used to balance the FY16 budget. Additionally, this creates $19 million in recurring General Fund dollars that can be spent in future years.

Senate Bill 2922 includes a reauthorization of the Historic Property Income Tax Program, which has been used by investors to restore buildings and grow commerce around the state. This measure expands allowable credits an additional $60 million to $120 million, with an annual cap of $12 million.

Senate Bill 2858, the Taxpayer Pay Raise Act of 2016, provides tax cuts aimed at economic competitiveness and fairness for every taxpayer. Phased in over ten years beginning in 2018, this legislation will eliminate the three percent individual income tax bracket and the franchise tax and ease the burden on self-employed Mississippians.

The delay in implementation affords time to study both revenue and spending. We also started looking at agency consolidations this year. In upcoming Sessions, look for more proposals to reform both our taxes, and how we spend tax dollars.

Significant Education Reforms

The Republican majority is building a strong record on education. People are taking notice. Mississippi was recently named as the 2016 recipient of the Frank Newman Award for State Innovation for transformational education reforms.

This Session, Senate Bill 2438 requires that all local school superintendents be appointed after January 1, 2019. Senate Bill 2161 changes the Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013 by permitting students in C-, D- and F-rated school districts to cross district lines to attend a charter school. Senate Bill 2157 increases the rigors of the “Third Grade Reading Gate,” which was passed a few years ago to raise Mississippi’s achievement level in reading.

The 2016 Legislature also continued the trend toward district consolidation. Since 2012, the Legislature has reduced the number of school districts from 152 to 139. By consolidating, more money will go into classrooms instead of to support administrative costs.

Transportation Infrastructure
One unresolved issue is funding for roads and bridges. Serving on the Transportation Committee, I spent a good bit of time listening to concerns about our infrastructure needs and debating how to pay for improvements. While we did not settle on a plan to do that, House committee members plan to take a hard look at MDOT and ways to increase efficiency in road projects before next Session.

Stay tuned.

Elections Reforms
Another “big one that got away” is election reform, including strengthening our campaign finance laws. An election code “clean-up” bill died because of opposition to campaign finance provisions added to the final conference report. I served on the conference committee on House Bill 797, and the campaign finance reforms included in the final version were both workable, and needed. Campaign finance and election reform will be back next year.

Other legislation this Session:

Senate Bill 2179 sets up the Department of Child Protection Services to begin the process of correcting Mississippi’s child foster care woes. The ultimate goal is an agency whose sole focus is to address the treatment of foster children. Currently, caseloads are very high with one social worker for every 40 children. With the establishment of the new agency, the goal is to have one social worker for every 14 children. House Bill 1240 addresses the termination of parental rights by amending existing laws that caused problems to ensure faster, permanent placement for abused and neglected children.

Senate Bill 2162 expands the board of the Jackson Airport Authority to include members appointed not only by the City of Jackson, but also Rankin and Madison counties, the National Guard Adjutant General, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. This revamp of the board may well lead to better performance of an important regional economic asset.

House Bill 1223, the “Go Cup” bill, authorizes certain municipalities and counties to establish Leisure and Recreation Districts. Once approved, permit holders may serve beverages in an outdoor environment within the boundaries of the district. If there is interest, we may look to add more Madison County communities next year.

House Bill 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act, might qualify as the lightning rod of the Session. I had reservations about parts of HB1523. However, I stand by my vote for the bill, especially given the Obama Administration’s public school transgender bathroom edict this past week. Something needs to be done to protect religious freedom and freedom of conscience from the rush to intolerance from the left. My vote for the bill was to accommodate both the newly-created right to marry as one chooses and the bedrock rights to religious faith and freedom of conscience.

Finally, a couple stands for life: Senate Bill 2238 defunds Planned Parenthood and prohibits tax dollars from being spent with the abortion provider. The bill stops funding to the nation’s largest provider of abortions but continues spending on family health services to other providers. House Bill 519, the Mississippi Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, which bans that horrific method of abortion.

All in all, a busy Session. And the work does not stop in the “off season.” I am excited to have been nominated by Speaker Gunn as one of GOPAC’s 2016 Class of Emerging Leaders, a yearlong initiative to develop state legislators from across the country on how to be effective legislative leaders. In addition, the coming months are the time to offer feedback and ideas for next Session.
Safe travels, congrats to our graduates and the families who invest in them, and have a great Summer! Thank you for your engagement in the process. I am honored to work for you at the Capitol!

Rep. Cory Wilson
5/17/16