Sunday Focus: Local legislators ready to tackle slate of issues

Published 12:07 am Sunday, January 8, 2017


NATCHEZ — The 132nd regular session of the Mississippi Legislature began last week, and local legislators said they are ready to tackle a list of issues that will be priorities this session.

Atop the list of legislative priorities is balancing the state budget.

Email newsletter signup

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said the budget would be the dominant issue of the session.

“Hopefully we can keep from cutting any more than has already been cut,” Dearing said.

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, said legislators have already spent a great deal of time in meetings discussing the budgets of various state agencies.

“We are going to have to make some very difficult decisions,” he said. “We have already been meeting with state agencies and other legislators to look at ways that by the end of the session, we make sure we have a balanced budget.”

Budget difficulties lawmakers are facing this year, Mims said, are decreased sales tax and income tax receipts.

“Our income tax receipts and sales tax receipts are not where we want them to be,” he said. “We are going to have some challenges with our state budget.

“Fortunately, we have to have a balanced budget in Mississippi. I wish the senators and representatives in Washington had to have a balanced budget. But at the end of the day here, we have to have a balanced budget, and we will be making sure we craft a very honest and well thought out budget.”

The state’s budget is projected at more than $6 billion, with state spending at $195 million, or 3 percent, less than the current budget.

While education budget cuts are on the table, Mims said education funding is a priority.

“The goal is to make sure we spend as much money on education in classroom for the teachers (and not administration),” Mims said. “I think it’s also important to realize our state budget is $6 billion, and $2.5 billion of that went to K-12. Our focus is always on education K-12. We also have to realize that community colleges like Co-Lin and universities play a large role in educating our citizens in Mississippi.”

Lawmakers will be looking at the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s education funding formula, during the session as well. A bill to revise MAEP during the 2016 session was unsuccessful.

The Legislature hired a consulting firm in October to make recommendations for amending MAEP.

“We will be looking at MAEP and looking at how we can get more money to the classrooms and teachers,” Mims said. “That’s where we think it’s important. A lot of people think the more money we put in K-12, the more results we will see, and that’s just not true. We want more money going into the classrooms.”

Whatever the outcome of state budget talks, Dearing said he hopes education remains at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds.

“My only hope is that the education budget does not suffer any more than it already had,” he said.

Funding for roads and bridges will also be a topic of discussion amid warnings of crumbling infrastructure from transportation officials.

Dearing is the primary sponsor of a bill that would set up a state lottery in Mississippi.

“We’ve already passed a constitutional amendment to allow (a lottery), but we’ve never passed a bill to set it up,” Dearing said.

If passed, the bill would allow for 75 percent of revenue from the lottery would go toward the Vision 21 program, which Dearing said would add about 2,000 miles of four-lane highways. The remaining 25 percent would go toward repairing current roads and bridges.

Once the Vision 21 program is paid off, Dearing said, 50 percent of lottery funds would go toward highway repairs and 50 percent into the general fund.

Discussion of increasing the tax on fuel might be part of discussions about road and bridge funding, but Mims said he is not in favor of an increase.

“We do believe we have to have good roads and bridges, and we spent lots of time this fall digging into (the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s budget),” he said. “We need to look at a long-term solution to make sure roads and bridges are safe and maintained, but I don’t think the best option is to raise the fuel tax. … I think our citizens are taxed enough.”

With a little less than three months of session work ahead of them, Dearing and Mims say they are optimistic the 2017 session will be a productive one.

“I’m very optimistic,” Dearing said. “I think this year will be a lot better session than last year. Last year was such a contentious session. Hopefully we will be in a lot better mood this year, with the first year (of the administration) under our belt, especially with new (legislators) who came in last year. I think we are going to have a good session.”

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, could not be reached for comment.