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Representatives discuss issues at breakfast

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R-Natchez) discusses issues with Natchez Community CEO Eric Robinson during the legislative breakfast Monday morning at the Eola Hotel. (RIGHT) Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) discusses some of the issues that will be addressed at this year’s legislative session during the legislative breakfast Monday morning at the Eola Hotel.

NATCHEZ — The first few days of the legislative session were productive but more akin to the warm-up before a big race than the race itself, Adams County’s elected representatives to the Mississippi legislature said Monday.

The legislative session convened Jan. 8, and Monday the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual legislative breakfast. Local residents and elected officials filled the Eola Hotel’s ballroom to hear perspectives from Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Natchez), Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R-Natchez), Sen. Kelvin Butler (D-Magnolia) and Rep. Sam Mims (R-McComb). Rep. Angela Cockerham (D-Magnolia) was not present.

Topics of discussion included the possible expansion of Medicaid in Mississippi and charter schools.

After the meeting, Johnson said he believed everyone at the table had a lot of energy.

“We seemed like a team in Southwest Mississippi, putting our heads together to make things happen,” he said.

Butler said the past week has been spent pre-filing legislation and meeting with other legislators, but he has heard that this week a charter school bill will be introduced.

“We know what is going to happen, but we are kind of meeting and greeting each other, but we are about to get down to business,” he said.

Mims said the House leadership has clearly indicated that education reform will be a priority this session.

“Charter schools have gotten so much attention from the media outlets, but it is only one piece of the puzzle,” he said. “There will be other education reforms the committee chair will introduce as well.”

And that — along with other issues — will start moving through the legislative chambers very quickly.

“This is a 90-day session as opposed to a 120-day session, so the next few weeks we will really pick up the pace,” Mims said.

The $72.6 million special appropriations bill that was passed Friday, which will be used to fund capital improvements to colleges and universities, government agencies and local bridge repairs, was a notable first action because it directed much-needed funds but represented a sea of change in how things will be done, Mims said.

“In the past 20 years, you have seen most of that money being bonded, which means we are borrowing it and paying later,” he said. “Now, we are taking the approach this session to pay for it out of our appropriations committee rather than borrowing it, so I think that is a very exciting piece of legislation.”

Johnson said his focus would be continued funding for transportation, railroad in particular.

“The Mississippi Development Authority has made available $5 million in bonding, $2 million of which will go to the Natchez line for improvement,” he said. “We are at the front line of that issue.”

Sojourner said she has been handling two major bills, both of which she said should boost jobs and tax revenue.

The first of those bills is to entice oil companies to further develop the Tuscaloosa marine shale, an oil play in southwest Mississippi, through tax incentives.

“On the Tuscaloosa marine shale severance tax bill, we are really trying to hammer out the exact language in that bill, because it has got to accomplish two things; it has got to make this play attractive despite how expensive it is, but it has also got to protect Mississippi’s best interests,” she said.

The second bill would develop a tourism model for the state based on similar programs in Missouri and Ohio, Sojourner said.

“Whatever the total dollar amount of money that tourism brings into Mississippi, we make that a benchmark and next year, any additional funds that come in, we will take a portion of those dollars and earmark them, creating a special fund for marketing tourism,” she said. “We are trying to create a fund that would allow us to attract more tourism dollars without it being a tax or money coming out of our general fund.”

Sojourner said she is also working on a bill that would ratchet up consequences for people who don’t pay child support.

“Those mothers who are forced to use state services (because of non-payment), they would feel much better if they were getting the support they needed, they would be able to work and be able to get child support without having to fall back on the system,” she said.

“We want to send a message (to deadbeat parents) to be careful what you do, because you are going to be held accountable for taking care of that child.”

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