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High Noon for the Mississippi Legislature

Cory T. Wilson is a Moss Point native and Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. You can follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email cory@corywilson.ms.

The 2013 Legislative Session gaveled in at high noon on January 8. It seems like an eternity since January 2012, when they last gathered. Then, many legislators –– a historic number–– were brand new, as were the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house. Heady days.

Consider: since January 2012, new redistricting plans for the legislature have passed, been approved by the department of justice, and the lawsuit asking a federal court to redraw the lines has been dismissed. No elections until 2015.

Charter schools, aimed at meaningful education reform, died in the house education committee, because of opposition by several Republicans. A bond bill, similar to bond bills passed as a matter of course in prior years, also died, in the senate, after the lieutenant governor drew a line on the size of the proposed debt measure.

Last session, one could have reasonably predicted that the supreme court would overturn Obamacare, and the voters would overturn Obama himself. Neither happened.
And, (some would argue as a result) the economy continues barely to limp along, in a recovery that feels more like a recession.

The fiscal cliff did not happen, but neither did a real solution to the real problem in D.C.–– spending.

All these things will impact this session with foreboding and deja-vu. The biggest issues this year will be echoes from the last.

Charter schools appear to be on a course for passage. Since the proposal died last session, pressure has been building to pass a bill. Governor Phil Bryant has proposed a comprehensive set of reforms, making education an even greater focal point than usual.

The change in school ratings last year from an set of vague labels to a straightforward A-F grade will fuel the charter debate, as more Mississippians understand that the old “Successful” rating really only meant a C-level school.

Proponents of charters are better organized. Pro-charter group Better Education for Mississippi (“BE4MS”) just released polling data showing strong public support for charter schools, even in places like Rankin and DeSoto Counties, whose superintendents resisted the measure last year. After last year’s defeat, conservative reformers may have the upper hand this year.

2013 is the year of reckoning for Obamacare. Expanding Medicaid eligibility to Mississippians at or below 138 percent of the poverty level would bring an estimated 300,000 more people into the Medicaid program, with a million covered in total, or a third of the state. The cost to Mississippi for 2014-2025, would run as high as $556 million.

Some argue that Medicaid expansion would actually yield positive economic growth, reasoning that Mississippi would benefit from billions in “free” federal dollars. By 2025, the study estimates that Medicaid expansion would create 9,000 jobs in the state, and actually add to the general revenue tax coffers.

Theoretically, an influx of billions of dollars could stimulate the economy. But the economic “benefit” does not account for inefficiencies (i.e., waste) in government spending, or the strain on Mississippi’s health care providers. Three hundred thousand more people demanding “free” health care may strain the system to the breaking point. And, no one really knows how many people will end up on government health care rolls. Obamacare’s track record of estimating costs is so far abysmally inaccurate.

Governor Phil Bryant has said he is opposed to expanding Medicaid because the state cannot afford it. Legislators must now decide whether they agree.
A bond bill should pass this year. Look for it to be a modest one.

After blocking a bigger bill last session, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves reiterated on Monday support for a bond package “reasonable and rational in size.” Reeves has said he would oppose bonding for things that should be funded through the normal appropriations process. With public sentiment for reducing debt and spending, Reeves’ position, which got attention last year, will likely steer the outcome this session.

Quietly, some leaders are talking about highway funding and an increase of the state’s gas tax. Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall has noted that the cost of road construction and maintenance has steadily increased, while the gas tax used to fund those expenses has stayed the same for 25 years.

Mississippi’s tax is 18.8 cents per gallon of fuel, with 0.4 cents going to an environmental protection fee. In the three coast counties, there is an additional three cents per gallon seawall tax. The gas tax is a “flat” tax; it is the same regardless of the price of fuel.

The chance of an increase is slim. Governor Bryant has expressed opposition, as have key legislators. Beyond the lack of appetite for raising taxes, though, there are other thorny issues. Should “green energy” vehicles become more common, and gas consumption decrease, the whole way roads are funded will have to be changed. For now, legislators have plenty of fuel on the fire.

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