Big plans failed, but little laws may help — Local lawmakers look back on session, count wins, losses

Published 10:09 pm Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mississippi’s legislative session ended Wednesday in anti-climax.

The gavel struck down for the last time to send lawmakers home for the year, leaving several Republican initiatives lying broken and dead while same-team legislators pointed their fingers at each other for inexplicable failures in the majority.

At least one local legislator walked away a happy man.

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“To be honest, considering the circumstances and the numbers, it was probably a pretty decent session for Democrats,” said District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello. “Republicans, even though they control everything, couldn’t figure out how to control themselves.”

While Republicans scratch their heads about the demise of education reform, road and bridge funding and other pet projects that died in games of hot potato between the House and Senate, Evans and other Democrats spent the session quietly voting “no” on bills and trying to protect their party’s interests. Escaping the session without changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement System or the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is victory enough, he said.

“That’s what happens when you get people in overall power, who control everything and don’t have the ability to, in fact, control everything,” Evans said. “Makes you wonder actually who is in control. Certainly Democrats aren’t, but obviously Republicans aren’t either.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, disagrees with Evans on what to label as “victory” — they’ve disagreed on just about everything since both were elected in 2008 — but she admits her party missed some big opportunities.

Currie is especially bummed out about the demise of House Bill 957, the Republican-backed education funding formula meant to replace MAEP. The bill flew through the House early in the session, heading over the Senate on Jan. 18 only to die on a recommit past deadline on March 1.

“I wish I could tell you what fell apart on that,” Currie said. “I think they waited too long to take it up, and they let the drum start pounding a little too much with all the Facebook posts and ‘fake news.’ We would never have voted to give our schools $2 million less. That’s just ridiculous, and that was going around in Brookhaven.”

Currie said education funding reform is off the table — the old lawmakers’ term is “dead, dead” — and won’t be brought up again soon.

District 37 Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, wasn’t as attached to the education bill. She abstained from the killer vote that sunk it in the Senate, saying the legislation wasn’t ready.

Her major disappointment for 2018 was the death of the BRIDGE Act, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ plan for $1 billion in road and bridge funding.

“I really thought we would end up with something else besides just $50 million in bonds,” Doty said. “I was a bit surprised. What I liked about the BRIDGE bill was moving money over from MDOT to other projects. MDOT tries to use their money to optimize for federal matches, which is good, but there is more red tape you have to get through. MDOT projects are inherently more expensive.”

But it wasn’t all bad news for local lawmakers. Currie and Doty were able to slide the Mississippi School of the Arts $1 million — they originally tried for $1.5 million — for campus repairs and were able to restore the $125,000 cut from the school’s budget this year.

Doty’s Senate Bill 2609, which would ease the arts school’s budget by requiring the department of education to provide it with business services, died after a dust-up with MDE. She said she would try again in 2019.

Currie was proud to have her Gestational Age Act signed into law, enacting some of the nation’s most stringent abortion restrictions. It passed swiftly and was immediately challenged in a lawsuit.

Doty also had a bill become law — she wrote Senate Bill 2668 to establish an order of priority for accessing safe-deposit boxes after an elderly constituent came to her unable to retrieve his late wife’s deposit box without creating an estate, an costly legal move.

“I thought to myself, ‘surely we have a law on this.’ Lo and behold, we didn’t,” she said.

Currie and Doty also finally crossed the finish line on an effort to establish the Brookhaven Country Club as a resort area, allowing alcohol sales. Currie’s House Bill 415 was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant March 19, while Doty’s Senate Bill 2618 hit his desk Thursday.

Both bills are similar, but not the same.

“Right at the end of the session, other groups wanted to add on our bill, and I said, ‘no, we are not doing this,’” Doty explained. “I took Becky’s bill, got it through the Senate and got it to the governor. My bill ended up having all these other projects put in it, and now it has nothing to do with Brookhaven. Your bills get hijacked sometimes.”

District 53 Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven, was able to steer legislation into law this year, too. His House Bill 1359 will exempt disaster payments made to farmers from taxation.

“I was able to push it through on my side, and I had help from a lot of folks. They went to bat for me on their side, telling the committee folks over there, ‘this is a good deal, we need to get this through,’” he said. “Why it can’t work like that on everything, I have no idea.”