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Budget, education top lawmakers’ lists

State lawmakers gathered at the capitol this week to begin the 2016 legislative session.

This session the Legislature is sure to face some challenging issues, including tax cuts for businesses and possible tax increases for infrastructure needs, weak revenue, pressing needs in education and health care systems and hot-button topics such as the state flag.

Each year, District 39 Sen. Sally Doty said, roughly 3,000 bills are filed and less than 300 make it to the governor’s desk to be signed.

The Daily Leader caught up with Doty and Republican District 92 Rep. Becky Currie to talk about a few of the things they are working on and what they expect to see this session.

Doty, a Republican, said she is a co-author on a bill that would return more of the sales tax revenue collected by municipalities back to them. The percentage that the state keeps, Doty said, is more than in previous years.

“A couple years ago it was a higher amount that the municipalities got back, and so this bill would restore that,” she said. “Some of sales tax revenue to local municipalities would be designated for infrastructure, and that would be very helpful to our local municipalities because they are really struggling with their infrastructure needs.”

Doty said one of her pet projects is sex education, and the law that requires it to be taught in schools is sun-setting this year.

“When it was passed it was so that this law will repeal in four years and if we do nothing it goes away,” Doty said. “I hope we will authorize that piece of legislation and tweak it to make it a better vehicle to teach our kids personal responsibility.”

While lawmakers are still compiling and working on goals, Doty said she also will push for a bill that would allow King’s Daughters Medical Center to collect delinquent fees from an individual’s tax return. Doty said she has filed the bill a couple of times but will see a renewed effort this year.

Patience in lawmaking is key, and she said sometimes it take several years, or even a term or two, to get enough traction for a bill to move through the process of being approved.

Currie said this year she is working on several bills, the first being one that impacts Mississippi women — a group severely underrepresented in the legislature.

“A big insurance company has come out with a policy starting in 2016 that they don’t want to pay for women’s pap smears but every three years,” Currie said. “How many women are going to die of cancer that wasn’t caught for two years? I filed a bill to make sure they get their pap smears.”

Like Doty’s sex-ed efforts, Currie’s bill is likely to make the male-dominated Legislature uncomfortable — making their effort to protect women’s and reproductive issues all the more important.

“I really believe that we need more women in the Legislature,” Currie said. “It would get a lot easier to stand behind this bill for women’s health if there were a group of women behind it. More women need to run for office and I believe if they did, women would win. Women are underrepresented, there’s no doubt about that.”

Another bill Currie is invested in is mental health reform with regards to non-violent offenders or inmates who are mentally ill.

“I’ve done a lot of work with the mentally ill and making sure they don’t stay in our jails and instead are going straight to the crisis centers. It has worked well in Brookhaven so far and other states doing this save millions. Just like our drug court, we would set up a mental health court,” she said.

Currie’s bill proposes the pilot program be started in Jackson. The number of non-violent offenders who are in and out of the judicial system who are just not on their medicine [or receiving treatment] is staggering, she said. The system would be set up through regional mental health centers and would have requirements like ensuring offenders are taking their medicine and following up with all appointments and treatments.

“If they don’t meet those requirements then a judge would determine whether they go to a state hospital or if they need to go to jail,” Currie said. “Our prisons are loaded with people who are mentally ill — some who maybe if they had the right treatment the taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for them being in prisons. It’s the next step in Mississippi in mental health reform. I think this would save us money in the long run and be better for Mississippians. And, it’s the humane thing to do.”

On the budget and taxes

“The needs of our public education system and infrastructure needs will be a hot topic of conversation,” Doty said. “There is talk of revising MAEP to better allocate funds among schools and there’s also a big increase in our Medicaid budget. So the question is ‘How do we balance those issues with our goals of a smaller government and with as low of a tax burden as possible on your everyday citizen?’”

Doty said she thinks the Legislature can do that with some good tax reform policies.

“I foresee lowering or eliminating the franchise tax,” Doty said. “It hits small businesses extremely hard. Surrounding states have eliminated it years ago, so it also hurts us as far as economical competitiveness. Any tax cut would be offset by economic development.

“So there’s a renewed effort to eliminate that, and I think we will also see something with personal income tax as well,” Doty said.

Any plan to eliminate the personal income tax, Doty said, would be a slow, gradual process. The bill proposed last year had certain triggers, she said, like the rate would not decrease until revenue was X, so it was carefully measured.

“I think we’ll talk about both of those in-depth because it’s a tight budget year, and we only need to spend the money that we have,” Doty said.

Currie said the Legislature is going into the year with a $64 million deficit, and the only way to make it up is to cut somewhere.

“We’re looking at every aspect, be it a 1 percent cut across the board or taking money out of the rainy day fund, but we’re not sure,” Currie said. “We also get our best numbers [as to the actual budget] in March, so we’ll know a lot more then.”

Foster care reform

One major issue the Legislature has been pressured to tackle is that of Mississippi’s faulty foster care system. Doty and Currie both commended the governor’s move to gradually take foster care responsibilities from an overloaded Department of Human Services.

“This [agency] would just be foster care, and the people will be experts in that field. And for those who don’t treat foster parents well and don’t treat our foster children well, their time will be short,” Currie said. “Our foster care system — one of the phone calls I get the most is from foster parents who have given their time and their love, caring about children, and how they [don’t have what they need] and how they are treated by the DHS,” Currie said. “It is a broken system.”

The governor recently appointed a former state Supreme Court justice as the executive director of the Department of Family and Child Services.

Education 

Newly elected District 53 Rep. Vince Mangold, a Republican, said one big issue from the November election that will stir reform talk is Initiative 42. If passed, Initiative 42 would have amended the Constitution to mandate “the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” The amendment would have given chancery courts the power to enforce this provision.

“Initiative 42, it didn’t pass,” Mangold said. “But a bunch of people voted for it. Was that the right thing for Mississippi, that initiative? I don’t know if it was the right thing, but I think it’s going to have — I mean I’ve been in some meetings already, and education is definitely going to be a topic. My comment was that, ‘Hey the people spoke.’ They want to see some changes and some things done different. So I think we’re going to have to listen to what the people say and see if we can’t make a concerted effort to try and better the education in Mississippi. Who wouldn’t want better education?”

The flag

Doty said she thinks the Legislature will see all kinds of different bills concerning the state flag. Currie said she doesn’t foresee it going to a vote.

“I believe we are headed to a popular vote on the flag issue, perhaps through a ballot initiative,” Doty said.