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Local leaders say two issues will dominate legislature

Illustration by Ben Hillyer

When the Mississippi legislature convenes Tuesday, local elected representatives and senators expect two issues to dominate the 90-day session: the expansion of Medicaid and charter schools.

Medicaid expansion

The proposed expansion of Mississippi’s Medicaid program, which pays for health care services for the poor, is a part of the broader national health care reform law that is beginning to go into effect.

Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) said the first three years of the expansion will be funded 100 percent by the federal government, and after that the state will have to fund 10 percent of the expansion.

Even with the possibility of federal funding in play, Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R-Natchez) said the proposed expansion does not have the support of the governor or herself.

“I have done a lot of readings on it, and I realize that there are going to be a lot of federal dollars we stand to gain and that in the first couple of years it doesn’t come at a big cost to the state, but then it does,” she said.

“I am very leery of a federal government that says we are going to send you all of this money when I don’t know where they are going to get the money from.”

Rep. Sam Mims (R-McComb), the chair of the house health and human services committee, said the expansion would place a third of Mississippi’s population on Medicaid.

“To put a third of our population on Medicaid, I think that is the wrong approach,” Mims said. “We need to teach people how to find jobs or trades so they don’t have to depend on Medicaid. Philosophically, I am not for expanding the role of government, and if you expand Medicaid, you are expanding the role of government.

“But probably the most important reason I oppose the expansion is that we simply cannot afford it. I’ve been privileged to be assigned to the House appropriations committee, and I have seen it — we simply don’t have the resources to expand Medicaid.”

But Butler said he has seen reports that the proposed expansion could create as many as 9,000 jobs.

“I support the expansion wholeheartedly,” Butler said. “I think it is the right thing to do. If we really look at the big picture and how we can help our constituents in a special way and at the same time put more people to work and then have a healthier state, be able to get checkups rather than go to the emergency room, that will ultimately save costs.”

And Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Natchez) said he thinks the expansion is inevitable.

“Given that percentage wise, per capita we have the unhealthiest population in the country, it is going to be hard to avoid the expansion,” Johnson said. “It will be very important for areas like Natchez that have rural hospitals whose patient mix is a healthy dose of Medicaid and Medicare patients.”

Because the state house, senate and executive branch are all currently held by conservative contingencies, Johnson said he does not expect to see a lot of public support for the expansion.

“There will be a lot of resistance,” he said. “But the medical community and those whose work is affected by health care, I think the leadership for this will come from the private sector.”

Charter schools

In the 2012 session, the issue of charter schools was given significant attention, though in the end no bill that would allow Mississippi residents to found charter schools was passed. Proponents say that charter schools provide an alternative for students who live in failing school districts. Charter schools are publicly funded but independent schools that do not have to answer to or use the curriculum of the local school boards that fund them.

Sojourner said a new school accountability system that was put in place in which schools are given a simple A-F grade will likely lay the groundwork for any charter school legislation this session.

“I think you will see a stronger push for charter schools when it is easier to see which school systems are failing systems,” she said.

Both Mims and Johnson said the issue has been one of importance to the governor and lieutenant governor and they expected the issue to gain some traction this time around.

Butler said some reassignments to the appropriate committees have been made so that the committees are composed of majorities of those who support charter schools, and he expects charter legislation to come forward this session. As he has seen them presented, Butler said he doesn’t support charter schools.

“I have serious concerns that we are taking public dollars and are putting it into something else that we don’t know will work,” he said.

“I am hoping that we can come up with some things that we can make the school system better rather than taking dollars out of the public schools and into an untried system.”

Other issues

Sojourner said she would be introducing legislation pertaining to the development of the Tuscaloosa marine shale. The senator said she crafted the measure after talking to legislators in several other states who had dealt with similar development.

“We know that if this (oil and gas) play is going to develop into a commercial status, we are going to have to make some changes in our regulatory and our tax system in Mississippi,” Sojourner said. “I have been working with the governor’s staff and attorney to draft language that would allow oil companies in the shale pay a tax holiday for the first two years and then change the tax structure on the back end to recoup that money.”

Sojourner said she would also take a proposed bill from the Mississippi Tourism Association that would allow the MTA to take a portion of the tourism dollars generated in the state to further promote Mississippi tourism.

“This is basically a cost-sharing system, and it doesn’t create a new tax,” she said. “It is basically saying tourism in Mississippi generates ‘X’ amount of money every year, and we want to take a small portion of that and use it to generate more. It is the business philosophy that to make money you have to spend some money.”

Johnson said he would push for the state to outright ban text messaging while driving.

“It has become apparent that it is one of the practices that people engage in that has made it quite dangerous on the highways,” he said. “We have laws in place for those under 18, but we need to have it across the board.”

Mims said he planned to introduce legislation that would be aimed at attracting physicians to attend school in Mississippi and then stay to practice medicine here.

Butler said he would again introduce a bill to establish a statewide lottery, the proceeds of which would be used to pay for full college tuition for any student who graduates high school with a 3.0 grade point average. The bill is modeled after similar legislation that was passed in Georgia, he said.

“If we are going to do the lottery, we need to tie it to something that will be beneficial to the children of our state,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get some traction on it yet, but you have to stick with it.”

Butler also said that he would introduce a bill that would allow first-time offenders convicted of certain felonies to be able to clear their records.

The goal is to make it easier for those who have in the past committed a crime to start over and become productive members of society, he said.

Crimes such as murder and rape would not qualify for expunging, Butler said.

“The bill would allow them, if they did their time, paid all their fines and they did everything we asked them to do, their record ought to be expunged,” Butler said. “They have a hard enough time finding jobs and being productive citizens.”

The legislature will convene at noon Tuesday.

Rep. Angela Cockerham (D-Magnolia) could not be reached for comment.