Legislators face slate of issues at start of session

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, January 8, 2014

NATCHEZ — State lawmakers opened the 2014 legislative session in Jackson Tuesday, and as in recent years sometimes intense discussion of budgeting and education are expected to arise.

No bills were posted to the legislative website before the session, so it wasn’t possible for the public to read the specific proposals that will be debated. More than 100 bills appeared on the site shortly after the session started, but many more are expected before the Jan. 20 bill filing deadline. In most sessions, at least 2,000 bills are filed, though only a small fraction of them become law.

Leaders say they’ll look for ways to reduce spending on prisons. Former Adams County Sheriff Tommy Ferrell — now a law enforcement and homeland security consultant — said one of the proposals includes reducing the budget for the state penitentiary by reducing the inmate population.

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“That is the last thing law enforcement needs in this state,” Ferrell said. “Releasing hardcore criminals is not the answer.”

Ferrell said an effort by law enforcement officials would be made to oppose a move to reduce prison budgets by depopulation.

That could be done by having the legislature lighten the severity of the state’s truth in sentencing laws, Ferrell said, which require inmates to serve more of a given sentence rather than see early release due to how time in prison is calculated.

Mississippi spent about $339 million a year on corrections during fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. That was up from $276 million in 2003. Without changes, the state’s prison costs are on track to increase another $266 million in the coming decade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that worked with the governor’s staff and lawmakers to evaluate the corrections system.

Prisons won’t be the only public safety concern before the legislature, however, and Ferrell said he believes the perennial issue of allowing county sheriffs to use speed-detecting radar will come up. Sheriffs are currently barred from using radar.

“It is pathetic that here in this time that we don’t have an effective law enforcement tool to deter speeders to save lives,” he said.

The issue of Medicaid expansion in response to the Affordable Care Act was a significant issue of discussion during the 2013 session and a following special session in June, and while the matter may come up, the government and house leadership has expressed an opposition to it.

Advocates for the expansion say it will create thousands of new health care industry jobs as more people are covered for health care and the federal government has promised to cover 100 percent of the expansion for the first three years.

But Natchez-based internist Dr. Kenneth Stubbs said he hopes the legislature doesn’t bow to the pressure for an expansion. He said in Oregon — which expanded its Medicaid program in 2008 — no significant health improvement outcomes have been observed, but the program has cost 40 percent more than anticipated.

“I feel like so much of what is happening in health care is playing out in a national level that the pressure is put on the states to take on more and more Medicaid expansion, which is difficult for a lot of states to afford,” Stubbs said. “I don’t believe Mississippi should expand Medicaid because it will increase the dependence on an entitlement from the federal government, and I am afraid as they reduce payments (after three years) they will bump up against quality of care. In the long run it is going to make quality go down.”

In the realm of education, Natchez-Adams County School District Board of Trustees President Wayne Barnett said he wants to see the legislature clarify the process for taking over failing schools under the state’s accountability standards. If test scores do not improve at Morgantown Middle School, the state could take over the school in September.

“They need to look at the takeover rules and find a system where — if they are going to take over a school system — there is a smooth handoff,” Barnett said. “If it is not a smooth handoff, it results in a fumble, and the legislature needs to address that and make sure if they come in and take over — whether in Natchez or Podunk Holler — they have a smooth transition. The plan they have now is not a smooth transition, and the people at the state department will tell you that.”

Barnett said he would also like to see the legislature discuss fully funding education.

“The formula the state has was designed to equalize the tax burden throughout the state from the districts that have a high tax base and the counties that have a low tax roll,” Barnett said. “It was designed to equalize that, and if you are not going to go by that, we need to work on a new formula that guarantees education is fully funded.

“The kid who comes from Podunk Holler deserves the same quality education as the students who go to school in Madison County. Your education should not depend on your zip code.”

The legislature has until April to decide on a budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.