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The 111 days of the 2016 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature took some time to get through this year. This session we faced an enormous work load with approximately 1,789 House bills and 969 Senate bills filed and it was up to us as legislators and our respective committees to work through them. Ultimately, 119 House bills and 100 Senate bills remain active. In addition to the large number of bills filed, regular requests to have bills read on the House floor seemed to slow down an already slow pace. However, the Mississippi House of Representatives adjourned “Sine Die” on April 21, 2016, day 108 of the session, a full three days early.

This session brought many new faces to the Legislature. The House welcomed 26 freshman legislators (out of 122 members total), while the Senate welcomed 10 new members (out of 52 members total). The new lawmakers jumped right in by authoring bills, serving on various committees and presenting bills on the floor.  

Although from time to time there were some partisan disagreements, as is natural and to be expected, major legislation was adopted.

Conservative Budget, Bonding

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 State Support budget (includes General and additional State Funds) demanded a lot of attention and nurturing as it was crafted throughout the 2016 Session. House and Senate members were able to reach an agreement on a State Support budget of approximately $6.3 billion. The following figures compare to the FY 2016 State Support level of funding with the Governor’s January reductions and do not include deficits:

• K-12 Education– $2.24 billion, Funding for Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) component is at the same FY 2016 level of funding.

• IHL Universities– $748 million total, a $13.5 million cut (-1.8%).  

• Community and Junior Colleges– $264.7 million total, a $582,160 cut (-.02%). 

• Department of Health– $65.0 million total, a $278,175 cut (-.04%).

The House also adopted a plan to issue roughly $250 million in general obligation bonds for various projects this year, I am proud to say that I voted against this bond bill because I just could not justify voting for millions of dollars in loans when we were cutting all the departmental budgets with the exception of education. In order to raise funds, bonds are often issued. Many people believe bonds are necessary to help fund large projects with the intent to repay the debts over time. Discretionary money for small projects in local communities is also incorporated into this plan. Some of the larger projects included are:

IHL: $61 million for the eight colleges and universities 

FURNISHING AND EQUIPPING OF 2 EQUINE CENTERS $1.8 million

CONSTRUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT OF WALKING TRAILS $1 million

Civil Rights Museum and MS Museum of History: $16.6 million

State Shipyard: $45 million

The Mississippi Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, Senate Bill 2362, was adopted this year. Current law permits state agencies to charge other state agencies for rent, assessments, audit fees, personnel fees and other charges for services and resources. Enactment of this measure eliminates those interagency charges for resources. This action will free up about $123 million of special funds that will now go to the General Fund. 

Sixteen state agencies will be affected by this change: the State Fire Marshall, the State Fire Academy, the Office of the Secretary of State, the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services, the State Personnel Board, the Mississippi Department of Insurance, the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Minimum Standards Board, the Mississippi Tort Claims Board, the Mississippi Gaming Commission, the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, the Mississippi Department of Revenue—License Tag, the Office of the State Public Defender, the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Office of the Attorney General and the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

These agencies combined have $104 million in ending cash balances in FY2017. This nonrecurring money will be used to help the state get out of FY16. Additionally, this move creates $19 million in recurring General Fund dollars that can be spent in FY2017. The agencies will lose $29 million in federal fund matches and will now have to compete with other state agencies during the Appropriations process. Proponents believe this legislation will shine a light on the appropriations process and hold agencies accountable. Opponents argue that this legislation removes some of the agencies’ flexibility to operate. 

Education
House Bill 33 revises the definition of eligible students under the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act to include those who have had an active IEP for the past five years. The “Special Needs Bill,” passed last year, established a pilot program that gave the parents of children with special needs the ability to withdraw their children from public schools, allotting them up to $6,500 to go toward school tuition, tutoring and other educational expenses. The original language only extended to students with IEPs for a year and a half. 

House Bill 207 addresses reimbursement for all school employees who complete each component of the National Board Certification process. Enactment of this measure also allows an additional $4,000 supplement and benefits to National Board Certified teachers in Claiborne, Adams, Jefferson, Wilkinson, Amite, Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Quitman, Sharkey, Issaquena, Sunflower and Washington counties. 

House Bill 989 establishes the Mississippi Achievement School District (MSASD) to oversee the administration of certain failing school districts with an “F” rating for two consecutive years. Enactment of this measure would roll them into the MSASD. In an effort to prevent overwhelming the MSASD, the Mississippi Department of Education would have the authority to determine if placing a failing district within the new district would be prudent. After achieving a “C” for five years, the local political subdivision could petition the State Board of Education for the school district to revert back to local control in which time a referendum would be held to gauge the public’s interest in doing so. 

Senate Bill 2438 requires that all local school board superintendents be appointed after January 1, 2019. If a superintendent was elected after the last general election, that superintendent would be permitted to maintain his or her position until the next qualifying date.  

Senate Bill 2157 increases the rigors of the “Third Grade Reading Gate,” which was passed a few years ago. Implementation of this law would raise Mississippi up from a level from the lowest achievement level in reading. After discussing this bill with local educators we determined that there wasn’t enough data on the current “Third Grade Reading Gate” to implement a more stringent one so I voted No on this bill.

Senate Bill 2161 makes changes to the Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013 by permitting students in C-, D- and F-rated school districts to cross districts lines in order to attend a charter school. Enrollment preference will go toward underserved children. This does not affect A and B school districts.

School District Consolidations. Over the last several years, there has been a move in the Legislature to consolidate school districts. Since 2012, the Legislature has reduced the number of school districts from 152 to 139. Criteria for consolidation include small school districts and/or chronically underperforming academically. By consolidating, members hope that the money saved will go into the classrooms instead of to support administrative costs.

House Bill 926 consolidates the administrations of the Durant Public School District and Holmes County School District.

 House Bill 987 consolidates the administrations of the Greenwood Public School District and Leflore County School District. 

House Bill 991 creates a study committee to review consolidating all three school districts (Houston, Okolona and Chickasaw County) within Chickasaw County into one school district with one local school board. 

Senate Bill 2495 proposes administrative consolidation of Montgomery County and Winona Municipal Separate School Districts. Winona City Schools would absorb the two schools in Montgomery County. 

 
Senate Bill 2500 provides for the administrative consolidation of the Lamar County School District. The Lumberton School District pulls from two counties, Pearl River County and Lamar County. Local leaders in Lumberton, Lamar and Poplarville School Districts would be tasked with determining a way to dissolve the Lumberton School District by July 2019. Enactment of this measure would include maintaining a school in Lumberton despite dissolving the Lumberton Central Office.

Senate Bill 2501 transforms Coahoma Agricultural High School into an early college high school managed by Coahoma Community College. 

Reassuring Public Safety, Transportation

Reassuring Public Safety, Transportation

Legislation was passed this year to ensure safety on our roads and in our communities. 

House Bill 447 authorizes the Department of Revenue to require fingerprints and background checks for employees with access to federal tax information. 

House Bill 1292 describes felony requirements for violations of those serving as social hosts. Enactment of this measure would fine any adult who hosts, or allows to continue, a party where minors are drinking alcohol. The adult would be fined $1,000 and/or face imprisonment of no more than six months. 

House Bill 578 enacts the “Mississippi See Something, Say Something Act,” which protects a person who acts in good faith and reports suspicious activity or behavior that relates to an act of terrorism.

House Bill 1381 creates a preemption to allow transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft, the ability to operate in Mississippi without fear of being shut down by local governments. 

Senate Bill 2237 ensures that the identity of the execution team and suppliers of lethal injection medicines will remain confidential.

Second Amendment Rights

Due to the continued tightening of Second Amendment rights in states around the nation, the leadership introduced and passed bills focused on protecting those rights.

House Bill 786 creates the Mississippi Church Protection Act, allowing trained church members to carry guns. This bill was crafted as a direct result of the tragedy that occurred in a South Carolina church during the summer of 2015. This law gives the option, not a mandate, that the governing body of a church or place of worship may establish a security program in which designated members may carry firearms to protect the congregation.

Senate Bill 2313 revises the prohibition of silencers on firearms, and those who violate the terms shall be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of no more than $500 and/or imprisonment in the county jail for no more than 30 days.

Health and Wellness

Many pieces of legislation focused on the health and wellness of the state’s citizens. 

House Bill 519 creates the MS Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.

House Bill 772 authorizes counsel to represent indigent parents in Youth Court. 

House Bill 1240 addresses the termination of parental rights by eliminating sections of existing laws that caused problems and replacing them with statutes that should ensure faster, permanent placement for abused and neglected children. 

House Bill 1289 requires law enforcement agencies to establish procedures relating to missing children.

House Bill 1380 requires that in all cases of sex crimes against minors, the arresting authorities must report all HIV test results to the State Department of Health and Children’s Safe Centers within 24 hours of receiving the test results. 

House Bill 1413 provides that a trafficked child is an abused child.

Senate Bill 2179 establishes the Department of Child Protection Services within the Department of Human Services (DHS) to begin the process of correcting Mississippi’s child foster care woes. The ultimate goal is to create an agency independent of DHS whose sole focus is to address the treatment of children in the system. Currently, case loads 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. 

Senate Bill 2493 establishes the Supporting and Strengthening Families Act. This legislation is designed to give families facing crises the ability to execute a power of attorney for voluntary guardianship for their children for a year. This does not impact parental rights. It provides parents a tool to be proactive before the Department of Human Services or the court systems become involved. Children would be placed with a family member or third party. The agency involved would require a full criminal background check on any third party. Children would be reunited with the parent once the parent’s issue is resolved. 

House Bill 1375 encourages the Department of Mental Health to try and arrange for supportive services for alcoholics and drug addicts upon discharge from treatment facilities. 

Senate Bill 2527, the “Right to Try Act,” provides immunity for hospitals where investigational drugs are used or purchased. 

Pro-Business, Pro-Economic Growth and Transparency

At the beginning of the Session, an “Extraordinary, “Special, Session was held to pass the largest job creation bill in the state’s history. The Continental Tire project in Hinds County will be a $1.45 billion company investment, bringing 2,500 jobs to the Central Mississippi area. The project with Edison Chouest Offshore, Topship, will be a $68 million company investment, slated to bring 1,000 jobs to the Port of Gulfport. Incentives for both projects include provisions for workforce development training and infrastructure improvements. Both companies plan to hire locally and utilize Mississippi contractors for at least 70 percent of construction.

House Bill 461 provides that the filing date for state income tax returns is the same as the filing date for corresponding federal returns.

House Bill 167 withholds a portion of the diversion of sales tax to municipalities that fail to comply with audit requirements. 

House Bill 1223, the “To Go Cup bill,” authorizes certain municipalities and counties the ability to establish special entertainment districts, a Leisure and Recreation District. After going through a public hearing, an adoption as a city ordinance, then submission and subsequent approval of a map to the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) group, ABC permit holders may serve all permitted beverages in an outdoor environment so long as it is within the boundaries of the district. This will affect the three coastal counties, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Holly Springs, Greenville, Greenwood, Canton, Grenada, Starkville, Water Valley, Jackson, Senatobia and Corinth.

House Bill 1511 creates the Mississippi Consumer Alternative Installment Loan Act. Enactment of this measure authorizes small loan licensees to make consumer loans under an alternative schedule of rates and charges from those under the Small Loan Regulatory Law. On loans of $4,000 or less, the licensee may charge a monthly finance charge of not more than 59 percent per annum on the unpaid amount of the amount financed.

Senate Bill 2409 creates the Mississippi Credit Availability Act and authorizes licensees to make consumer loans repayable in equal monthly installments over terms of four to 12 months. For loans of $500 or less, the repayment term is four to six months, and for loans of more than $500, but not more than $2,500, the repayment term is six to 12 months. The lender may charge and collect a monthly handling fee not exceeding 25 percent of the outstanding principal balance per month. The fee is not set at 25%, but instead is a cap, with the expectation that competition will be instilled into the marketplace, allowing lenders to compete and ultimately lowering the lending rate for everyone.

Senate Bill 2858 creates the Taxpayer Pay Raise Act of 2016, which is a $415 million tax cut, phased in over 10 years. It will go into effect in two years. This legislation will ultimately eliminate the three percent individual income tax bracket and the franchise tax and ease the financial burden on self-employed Mississippians.  

General Bills

House Bill 809 authorizes online voter registration under the authority of the Secretary of State. 

House Bill 81 Furnish without charge up to five certified copies of the death certificate of any deceased person who was an honorably discharged Military Veteran or who was killed or died while serving on active duty in the Military. This was my first bill to author and I am extremely thankful, on behalf of all veterans, for it’s passage.

Senate Bill 2167 requires independent candidates to pay qualifying fees and also increases those fees for party candidates. 

Senate Bill 2603 permits municipalities with a population of 500 or less to choose to elect three aldermen instead of five. Enactment of this measure would affect 77 municipalities. The reasoning behind this legislation is that many of these small areas have difficulty finding qualified people to run. This is not a mandate, but a choice for the applicable municipalities. 

And last but certainly not least there’s House Bill 1523;

Regardless of the spin the liberals and the media put on this law all it basically does is protect those that believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman from frivolous law suits for not catering to this clientele. This country was built because of the desire for religious liberties and those liberties should be protected.

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