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2018 could bring substantial debate in state

Mississippi legislators are starting the third year of a four-year term, which means they have a chance to accomplish goals without the immediate pressure of election-year politics.

Leaders are already discussing the possibility of rewriting the education funding formula, enacting a long-term plan to pay for better highways and bridges and creating a state lottery.

Discussing these issues and committing to them are two vastly different things — and there is plenty of debate to be had on the faults and merits of those issues. Legislators also threw words at them in 2017, and no big changes occurred.

The three-month session begins at noon Tuesday.

Medicaid, a government health insurance program that covers about 1 in every 4 Mississippi residents, is up for a thorough review. A so-called “technical amendments” bill could bring changes to the big, expensive program and it could keep lobbyists fully employed in 2018: a December legislative meeting about Medicaid was packed with health care executives and people representing special interests.

By early April, legislators are supposed to agree on about a $6 billion budget to keep state government running during the year that begins July 1.

Years ago, the Mississippi legislative website showed general bills that were filed before the beginning of each session. Now, bills start to appear online after the House and Senate are gaveled to order on the opening day.

As in the past, legislators are likely to expend plenty of sound and fury on social issues. Recent years have brought debates on religious objections to same-sex marriage, Confederate symbols and guns in church.

Some NFL players knelt during the national anthem in 2017 to protest racial injustice and police brutality. In Mississippi, a few high school athletes did the same, and some were punished. If there is an inflammatory issue waiting to be debated by the Mississippi Legislature, a proposal to prohibit kneeling during the anthem could be it. Based on past debates over social issues intertwined with race, this could expose raw emotions on all sides.

The Confederate battle emblem that has been on the state flag since 1894 was a point of contention during the 2017 legislative session, and could be again in the coming year. Critics see the emblem as a racist symbol to slavery and segregation. Supporters say it represents history and their heritage.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said many times that if the flag design is to be reconsidered, it should be put on the ballot for a statewide vote, as it was in 2001.

Confederate symbols came under increased scrutiny after June 2015, when nine black worshippers at a church in a Charleston, South Carolina, were massacred by a white man who had posed for photos with the rebel flag.

In Mississippi, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said after Charleston that this state should change its flag to a design that could unite, rather than divide. But since then, Gunn has said there’s no consensus in the House to advance any of several redesign proposals. Flag supporters in 2017 tried to withhold money from universities that refuse to fly the banner; that effort also failed in the House.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the state Senate, is gearing up to run for governor in 2019. He had the relative luxury so far of letting most of the flag fight happen in the House rather than the Senate. Like Bryant, Reeves has said the flag design should be handled by a statewide vote, if it is reconsidered at all.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.