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Lawmakers: Rural internet not a guarantee

Teacher pay raises are coming whether they are funded or not, and power companies are in no hurry to bring high-speed internet to the middle of nowhere, local lawmakers said.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, District 53 Rep. Vince Mangold and District 39 Sen. Sally Doty all agree the long-discussed pay raises for teachers across Mississippi will happen in the 2019 legislative session — an election year — that started off last week, but allowing the state’s 26 electric power cooperatives to offer internet service to their customers may not be the cure-all for bringing broadband to rural areas everyone thought it would be.

Doty, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, said only “three or four” of the state’s coops are willing to develop the infrastructure needed to offer broadband services right away.

“Once those three or four get up and running, I think the others will follow suit — but this isn’t a situation where it goes into law July 1 and you have internet Aug. 1,” she said. “It is so expensive, it will have to be done in phases. It’s going to take some time.”

While the first week of the session started slowly, with legislators getting back into the governing groove with meetings and feel-good resolutions, discussions on broadband are already heating up. Currie said another issue lawmakers and power companies will have to fix is fees for running internet lines on power poles not owned by the providing power companies.

“There’s no agreement yet. When you start putting money on the table, people start getting weird,” she said.

Mangold said the Legislature would do its part — restrictions preventing electric coops from getting into the internet business will be removed by the end of the session, no matter what other agreements are struck. Government will get out of the way, but that will not guarantee companies will make the investment needed, he said.

“We’re going to give them the opportunity to go do it, but whether you at the end of the road in the deep backwoods in Franklin, Lincoln or Lawrence counties is going to get it, that’s yet to be determined,” Mangold said. “I’ve talked to some of our electric coops around here, and they say, ‘Vince, we cannot afford to do it.’”

The state can afford teacher pay raises this year. Gov. Phil Bryant has asked around $50 million be put toward the raises over the next two years — around $1,500 per teacher — and Doty said there is enough additional revenue in 2019 to fund the raises and the retirement increases to go with them.

Currie said lawmakers are also looking to put more money in the Local System Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program used by county supervisors to fund bridge repair jobs. The LSBP program has not been consistently funded in recent years, which supervisors say is creating a backlog of work on the local level.

Currie said another round of LSBP money will be needed because new bridge funding based on last year’s sales tax formula will not begin to accumulate for another year.

As for each lawmaker’s personal legislation, Currie said she would take another shot at mental health courts this year — her House Bill 419 passed the House 116-1 last year, but died in a Senate committee with no action taken. The bill would create a mental health court system similar to the state’s highly praised drug courts, offering mental health patients accused of crimes a chance to avoid harsh sentences by following court-ordered treatment guidelines.

Currie said she would include the legislation in “a huge package” of criminal justice reforms lawmakers are expected to pass this year.

Doty said she will refile her Opioid Crisis Intervention Act, which seeks to combat the state’s opioid addiction rates by offering diversion programs and treatment options for addicts. The bill passed the Senate unanimously last year before falling in a House committee.

Doty also said she wants to change the Mississippi Department of Education’s accountability standards for attendance centers, saying the rules unfairly penalize K-12 institutions.

Mangold, meanwhile, is working on legislation that would require proper labeling for meat to combat “fake meat.” He says his bill will be similar to a 2013 law that requires restaurants to label the country of origin of catfish.

“I don’t know about you, but I like to know what I’m eating,” Mangold said.