/Top issues still up for debate after deadline day

Top issues still up for debate after deadline day

In the first two weeks of session, Speaker Philip Gunn was a major player. He negotiated through the House an ambitious reform of the public school funding formula as well as new ways to finance infrastructure maintenance. The Capitol observers will be watching closely for other key issues that spark debate on both the House’s and Senate floors. Here are some key issues that remain unresolved: Education The House quickly passed a 354-page bill to rewrite the state’s education formula early in the session. Gunn applauded the legislation for being a joint effort of the Senate and House, but Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves still has not addressed the issue. Reeves’ spokesperson Laura Hipp told Mississippi Today that Reeves was “committed to implementing student centered funding for Mississippi schools which better addresses the needs in the classrooms today.” Although the House submitted its bill to Reeves on Jan. 18, Reeves has yet to assign it to a committee. It was not possible for the Senate to produce its education funding bill before the deadline. This raises the question of how Mississippi will fund schools this year. A bill to greatly expand Mississippi’s existing education scholarship account program was passed by the Senate. Gray Tollison (R-Oxford), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said that the time is right now to move Mississippi out of last in education. School choice is an option. Senate Bill 2623 would allow all students who have attended public schools in the past year to be eligible for the accounts. This requirement would not apply to students whose parents are military personnel or foster children. Priority would be given to students with special needs or low-income students. Senator David Blount (D-Jackson) opposed the bill. He pointed out that the state could lose around $140million in public school funds to private schools. The bill would limit participation to half of public school enrollment in the first year. That’s 2,400 students. Each subsequent year, more students will be added. Blount stated, “I cannot believe that we’re about do something of such importance with so little thought or discussion.” Reeves stated that the bill could have “more impact on long-termeconomic progress than any other bill in the Legislature.” He said in a statement. “We still have a lot to do to get enough votes in Congress, but today’s actions move us one step closer in making this a reality.” House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett (R-Long Beach), killed Tuesday’s similar House bill. Roads In the first week of session, a few road funding bills were passed by the House. The most notable was an infrastructure bill which would take $108 million from state budget and redirect it to road and bridge funding throughout the state. Reeves has not yet assigned it to a Senate panel, as did the House education bill. Gunn also focused on infrastructure funding early in his career. The House passed a bill to divert $108million in general fund funds mainly to counties and cities for road and bridge repairs in the second week of session. It will be difficult to determine where the cash from the general fund should go. Reeves is against temporary solutions to the long-term infrastructure problem. Health care The Medicaid technical bills that reauthorize the Division of Medicaid, which expire at end of fiscal year, have been the focus of healthcare discussion at the Capitol. Both the House and Senate bills have made it to this point. The Senate bill, which was sponsored by Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula), the Chair of Medicaid Committee, does not make any significant changes to the law. One provision would “standardize” the pre-authorization process Medicaid uses for patient approvals. The Medical Care Advisory Committee recommended other changes such as allowing more doctors to visit and providing certain medications. These are all intended to encourage investment in preventative care. It is believed that patients will save money by spending on more affordable procedures before they need to go into serious medical situations such as inpatient hospital stays or temergency rooms visits. Wiggins said that the initial draft of this bill included several items to “control costs.” One of the most controversial was the one that would have allowed Division of Medicaid and state managed care companies to reduce the rates they pay for healthcare providers. Wiggins stated that “provider feedback” drove him to eliminate it. Child Protection Services was the topic of contention. They announced a staggering $38 million deficit in their fiscal year earlier this month. The agency has been working with the Department of Human Services to reduce their request to $12 millions. However, legislators claim they are still unsure where the money is coming from. The deficit was caused by legislators admitting that they did not realize that Child Protection Services would be moved out of the Department of Human Services’ control in 2016. This would dramatically reduce federal funding. House Bill 1171, which is sponsored by Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton), would make Child Protection Services a subagency within DHS to avoid a similar crisis in future budget year. Legislators called the “unintended consequence” of the decision to cap spending on Department of Mental Health’s disability waiver programs last year. The program has been frozen since July 1. House Bill 1234, sponsored John Read (R-Gautier), would remove the spending cap. Criminal Justice. Unlike previous years where leaders placed criminal-justice issues at the top of their priority list, many law-and-order bills are quietly making it to the forefront. A bill to define gangs and increase penalties for criminal gang activity was passed by the House. The House Corrections Committee then passed half-a dozen bills on deadline day. Two of them would have cracked down on cell phone use in state prisons. One would increase penalties for correctional officers who are guilty of smuggling drug into prisons. Another bill, HB 1124, would make it a crime to speak to a prisoner via a cellphone that is considered contraband. Chairman of the Corrections Committee, Rep. Bill Kinkade (R-Byhalia), said that the presence of cellphones was “one of our biggest nemeses.” The phones were used to plan criminal acts, including murder and extortion. Kinkade quoted statistics from the Mississippi Department of Corrections that showed the agency had recovered 2,700 cellphones in 2017. MDOC houses approximately 24,000 prisoners. Three members of the committee voted against this bill. They feared it could have unintended implications for loved ones, lawmakers and anyone else who gets phone calls from incarcerated persons. Rep. Joel Bomgar (R-Madison) stated that because of the high cost of collecting calls, many mamas will not be able resist talking to their child while in prison. He also said that they aren’t plotting gang activity, they’ren’t smuggling drug and flying drones, and they won’t be able to resist calling their child. The committee also sent a bill to the House that would ban the use of unmanned aircraft (also known as drones) near prisons. BP funding This year, lawmakers are again arguing about how to spend the millions of dollars in BP oil spillage settlement money. BP, a multinational oil and gas company, has agreed to pay Mississippi $750million for damages resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that impacted the entire Gulf Coast region. In July 2016, the first part of BP’s $750million settlement – $150 Million – arrived. In July 2016, the first portion of BP’s $750 million settlement – $150 million – arrived at the Capitol.
The $109.6 million remaining is currently in the state’s treasury. The state will start receiving payments of $40 million per year from 2019 through 2033. The majority of the money will be retained in the three coastal counties by Gulf Coast delegate, regardless of party affiliation. Other state residents see the money to be a vital revenue source for infrastructure upgrades and other budgetary requirements. This month, the Senate passed a bill to regulate how millions of BP settlement funds could be spent. The bill would put the BP money in a separate fund that could “for projects benefiting Gulf Coast.” However, the House passed several measures this month to regulate how BP settlement money can go. Two bills were passed Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee. They would divide the settlement money into 10 development districts along the Gulf Coast. The money would be distributed by representatives from these districts through a grant process to fund projects that have “a significant impact on tax base,” worker development projects, or infrastructure improvement projects. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. Republish this Story