Friday, June 9, 2023

Recent Session Boasts Solid Accomplishments

Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email cory@corywilson.ms.

Despite some theatrics (inevitable when 174 politicians are holed up in a relatively confined space for three months), the Mississippi legislative session that just concluded has seen some solid accomplishments.

Washington take note: Many successes are the result of bipartisan compromises, and compromises between the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate. Here are some highlights, and one lowlight:

Charter Schools

On Tuesday, the long quest to enable charter schools in Mississippi cleared a significant hurdle. The House approved a compromise bill 62-56. The version of the bill is the same as the one the House approved earlier in the session. In order to reach agreement, Senators yielded on some stronger provisions, including applying charter provisions to C-rated schools, in addition to those rated D or F.

The charter school law represents a meaningful step toward education reform. For students trapped in poorly performing schools, charters give them a chance to have some choice in their education, and their future. For many students and their parents, charter schools offer promise of higher performance, and better results. Charters may only be one step toward improving public education, but they bring potential for competition, accountability, and results.

“Education Works”

Governor Bryant dubbed this the “Education Session” and offered a comprehensive set of reforms aimed at improving student performance. At the end of the session, Governor Bryant can claim significant success in seeing that agenda enacted.

The Legislature is poised to fix the way schools tabulate daily attendance, which is a basis for awarding state funding, by requiring a child actually be present for most of a day before being counted as “present.” Sounds pretty straightforward, except that some districts were manipulating the numbers to maximize funding.

The House has approved the “third grade gate” to enhance reading skills. The new law would require third-graders to prove they can read at a basic level to advance to fourth grade. It’s a way of raising literacy and lowering the dropout rate.

A final measure that would expand pre-K programs through encouraging public-private partnerships, grants, and matching funds has also passed. The measure is designed to improve the quality of preschool, without imposing a state-mandated program (or cost).

All in all, some of the most significant education reforms in a generation.

Bond Bill Survives

In 2012, the Legislature deadlocked on a bond bill, after Lt. Governor Tate Reeves refused to accede to House requests for higher debt financing than he wanted. There was much wailing and gnashing then, but the Lt. Governor’s fiscally-conservative stand did not result in the world coming to an end.

Instead, Monday, the Legislature approved a $196 million bond package. The bill includes $96.5 million for universities and community and junior colleges, and $10 million for a specialized wood pellet exporting facility at the Port of Pascagoula. Reeves’ message was heeded: the 2013 bond bill is less than half of the $423 million borrowed in 2011.

Nissan Expansion

The legislature also approved a bill allowing the Madison County Economic Development Authority to issue $100 million in bonds for the expansion of Nissan’s Canton plant. Centered in Madison County, the measure will impact statewide employment. The expansion will allow Nissan to add 1,000 jobs as the company increases the product lines being made in Mississippi.

Regional Coast Tourism Entity

Another bill with (literally) regional impact restructures the Harrison County Tourism Commission into a regional destination marketing organization to promote the Mississippi Coast. This is a big deal. The Coast, so often at cross-purposes and fractured into local agendas, can realize momentum by marketing its common assets. This legislation, endorsed by the three Coast counties’ supervisors, should lead to a stronger Coast economy, and, just maybe, a stronger sense of shared purpose beyond tourism.

Medicaid Special Session

The major snit-fit this session was over Medicaid expansion. Democrats repeatedly blocked reauthorization of Medicaid, demanding that Republicans allow debate over expanding the program. The GOP leadership uniformly opposes expansion based on cost and other uncertainties. According to Governor Bryant, “Democrats are choosing political posturing to expand ObamaCare over funding services for Medicaid recipients.”

Take heart, legislative junkies. The Medicaid stalemate will mean a special session is coming soon. If the GOP hammers the message that Democrats are voting against the 640,000 poorer Mississippians currently on Medicaid, some legislators may actually welcome the return trip to the Capitol, to fix the problem.