Lawmakers critical of recent legislative session

Published 12:04 am Saturday, May 14, 2016

NATCHEZ — Awful. Tough. Left out.

Those were words three of Adams County’s legislative representatives used to describe this year’s legislative session.

Sen. Bob Dearing, Rep. Robert Johnson and Rep. Sam Mims shared their thoughts on the session at the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce and Alcorn State University’s Friday Forum.

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Dearing, D-Natchez, said the session seemed to crawl after some senators insisted that every appropriations bill be read aloud, followed by a roll call vote followed by a motion to reconsider every bill.

“It slowed the process down,” Dearing said. “A lot.”

Mims, R-McComb, said a similar process happened in the House.

“We spent weeks and weeks reading bills,” he said. “It made the House have a lot of tension, the most tension internally I have ever seen.”

But Johnson, D-Natchez, said he at least understood the reasoning behind making the bodies approach the bills that way. With a Republican Supermajority, party leadership was determining not only which bills were heard on the floor of the Legislature but in committee as well, he said.

While leadership always has some role in what happens for efficiency’s sake, “you don’t do that with everything,” Johnson said.

“People felt like they were left out of the process, that they were disenfranchised,” he said. “They were saying that if we aren’t going to even have a debate on this, let’s stop and read every bill word for word until everybody listens.”

In other instances, Dearing said, committee heads said bond and appropriations bills had dozens of “technical changes” before they could be passed, but when senators asked for a copy they were told only one was available, the committee chairman’s.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was voting on,” he said.

Mims said the Legislature was faced with tough choices this year, with flat revenue for the current year and projected for the next year, and the state had to make significant cuts, with all agencies except K-12 services taking a cut.

Those cuts needed to be made now to help the state stay ahead in the long-term, he said.

Johnson, meanwhile, said the state made more than $300 million in unrequested tax cuts, a move he said was tied to “a political idea that sounds good but doesn’t function,” saying Mississippi should look to Louisiana and Kansas to see what happens if the state cuts too deeply.

Johnson was especially critical of the state’s lack of investment in infrastructure, saying this year was the year that roads and bridges were supposed to be addressed.

“We have critical needs in the state, but we are steady cutting taxes and attending fundraisers,” he said. “Politicians have raised more money in the last two years than they did in the previous eight.”

The state hasn’t raised a gasoline tax or any other fee for roads in 25 years, but while taxes have remained the same, road needs have grown, he said.

“If you don’t do anything about your roads or bridges, no one is going to want to come here for industry if they can’t move their products in and out efficiently.”

Attendees also asked the legislators about the state’s move to sweep all special agency funds into the general fund, which will impact — among other things — mental health, justice and children’s advocacy services.

Mims said the move “may have some unintended consequences,” but that he fundamentally understands it in terms of funding.

“Each special agency will have to come to the Legislature and make its case,” he said. “It should not change the process, it just changes it from a special fund agency to a general fund agency.”

Dearing, however, said he believed the move to push special funds into the general fund was “a move of desperation to save the general fund since obviously we are not going to raise taxes to do it.”

Johnson likewise said he does not think the special fund agencies will ever see the same level of funding again, citing an instance when the state transportation fund had $123 million taken from it that has never been repaid.

“When we asked for it to be paid back, we were told no,” he said.

Johnson said he believes the state instead needs to now revamp its tax structure to clean up loopholes and other revenue gaps rather than cutting and then cleaning it up.

At the end of the discussion, Johnson said he believes the three men at the table work well together and that despite their philosophical differences they can work together to represent the area.

“That is what we need in Jackson,” he said.