Legislators discuss state income tax, medical marijuana and spending rescue funds at Chamber’s legislative breakfast

Published 3:55 pm Monday, January 31, 2022

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NATCHEZ — State Sen. Melanie Sojourner and state Reps. Robert Johnson of Natchez and Sam Mims of McComb gave reports Monday morning on action taking place during this 2022 session of the Mississippi Legislature.

The three were guests of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce and its legislative breakfast series, which is presented typically twice a year. About 50 people gathered to have breakfast at the Natchez Grand Hotel and listen to the legislators.

Sojourner, a Republican, said the session has started out “fast and feverishly. The House always seems to move faster than the Senate.”

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She said the House has passed legislation that will eliminate the state income tax, which she applauds.

“That’s been real important to me for a long time,” Sojourner said “The Senate has not been as eager to do so. Of course, there are some disagreements on exactly what the bill looks like. Are there tax swaps in there or do you just base it off of revenue indexes to repeal the income tax?

“I’m hopeful more so this year that we will do something that is meaningful to put money back in the pockets of hardworking Mississippians. I think that’s the best way to inject local economies it to allow people to keep and spend more of their money,” she said.

The House and Senate have passed a medical marijuana bill as well as teach pay raises.

“I think (the medical marijuana bill) was the right move for Mississippi. We can all sit here and debate the points of the bill, but it is going to provide needed relief for a lot of people struggling in the medical community right now,” Sojourner said.

The first issue tackled by the state’s legislature was congressional redistricting, legislation that moved Adams County to a different district.

“It was not what either side wanted. Southwest Mississippi got moved to a new congressional district after lots of years of relationships with the previous leadership we had. That was a change for us, but leadership made it clear this was the direction we were going no matter how much some of us kicked and screamed,” she said.

Sojourner said she hopes legislation she has urged for years will finally pass into law, “which is allowing our military servicemen and women who hold the military equivalent of a CDL to let that license transfer to an on-the-road CDL, especially right now when we have a labor shortage.”

She said that legislation should be part of a larger MDOT bill that addresses drivers’ license reform.

Sojourner is also hoping for the passage of a bill that would require proof of citizenship, which she said would be part of an election integrity package the state Senate is working now.

State. Rep. Robert Johnson, a Democrat, agreed with Sojourner that the session thus far has been productive.

In addition to medical marijuana legislation, Johnson said a bill has been introduced in the House to reinstate the ballot initiative process, “which I think is very important.”

Johnson said in addition to putting money back in the pockets of working people, the House bill to eliminate state income taxes also reduces car tag prices by 50 percent and will eventually lower the sales tax on groceries to 4 percent. He said the bill had overwhelming support in the Mississippi House among Republicans and Democrats, especially after adding the reduction to car tag prices.

“I don’t know what it is. You can talk about cutting the grocery tax and income tax, but the minute you say we’re cutting your car tag price, people vote for it,” Johnson said.

His primary focus this session, Johnson said, was spending appropriately the state’s $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds. One of the ways he would like to spend a portion of that money is to help out essential workers and their families.

“They (federal government) want to see you shore up the pay of essential workers. Garbage truck, grocery store workers, people who work at schools — not just teachers — people who work in hospitals including doctors and nurses but also the people there who clean up and work in the cafeteria. All those people are essential workers. They haven’t stopped. They have had to keep working and so what I would like to see us do is to continue to move this process along fast and see us provide help for those people,” Johnson said. “We are losing employees, not just because of pay but because they are overworked and stressed. We are just being overwhelmed with this virus and we want to make sure we are doing all we can to reward and help them support their families.”

He said he would like to see Mississippi’s ARPA funds used also to repair infrastructure like water, sewer and water treatment.

“Like Natchez, small towns all over the state have water systems and pipes over 100 years old that need to be replaced and fixed. And we should seek to address our inability to have broadband throughout the state,” he said. “Forty percent of the state where kids go to school doesn’t have broadband and can’t access the Internet and get the best they can out of their public education. We want to make sure we use that money correctly to make sure some of these things are done.”

In terms of congressional redistricting, Johnson said the new district that includes Adams County and runs the length of the state on the west side is too large to be effectively governed.

“If what happened in Alabama happens in Mississippi, the court may weigh in,” he said. “It will be going to court because Congressman Thompson told me it is going to court.”

Johnson said one of the state’s most pressing issues is that its healthcare infrastructure is on life support.

“It is a desperate situation. It needs help. It needs an influx of money. You can call it the Mims expansion plan, Medicaid expansion plan, whatever,” he said, teasing his Republican colleague. “I’m ready to see this state take advantage of the $9 billion that will be available to keep our country and community hospitals open.

“It all comes down to the fact that small businesses and working poor people — when I say that, I don’t mean it in a derogatory way. I mean they work every day and they have enough money to pay for food and shelter but they don’t have enough money to manage their health care. The federal government understood that and wants to provide the support they need to make sure they aren’t running to the emergency room when something catastrophic happens by getting medication and managing care that they need.”

Mims said Mississippi’s economy is “still very strong and our unemployment rate continues to head in the right direction. Our surplus and revenues continue to increase even after federal monies have gone away. We are in the best financial place we have seen in a long, long time.”

He said he would like to see a portion of the state’s Rescue Plan money to help health care.

“Let’s not forget this is a health care pandemic. We can spend this federal money on health care issues and infrastructure. We will look at that the next couple of days in the appropriation committee,” he said. “I continue to be optimistic in where we are going and the policies we’ve put in place in Mississippi. This is a health care pandemic, but we cannot stop our economy. Our economy has to continue at the same time we make sure we stay safe and healthy.”