You know that old expression about the calm before the storm? Such has been the mood at the state Capitol for the past couple weeks. The relatively tranquil period follows a tumultuous period of fiery debates on abortion and immigration and hallway shoving matches over charter schools and workers' compensation. Expect the tide to turn when lawmakers hunker down to clear the calendar of thorny political issues before sine die (adjournment) the first week of May.
Two Big Fights
"Redistricting might overshadow the budget process--and that's fine with me," joked House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, this week at a John C. Stennis Institute press luncheon.
Lawmakers have until the end of the legislative session to complete both the budget and the once-per-decade task of redrawing the state's political boundaries. Now that the state will have a little extra spending money--about $128 million--some of the blood-and-guts predictions about severe cuts to needed state services have subsided.
Frierson conceded that the fiscal year 2013 budget, which both the House and Senate anticipate to be around $5.6 billion, would grow by about $67 million over the current fiscal year's budget. Most of the additional money will go toward offsetting so-called one-time funds such as legal settlements awarded to the state, Frierson said.
Meeting the growth in the state's Medicaid plan will be especially challenging because 100,000 more people will automatically join the state's Medicaid rolls in 2014 under provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, the drawing phase of the redistricting process is now finished, and it's expected that the public could see the new maps in the coming days. Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, the House chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Reapportionment, said Monday he couldn't talk about the new maps, yet, because experts are vetting the plan.
Mississippi has 122 House and 52 Senate districts. The overall number of districts will likely remain the same, but some districts might be absorbed into areas where the 2010 Census shows significant population growth, such as DeSoto County.
"I'm anxious to see how creative they will be," said Rickey Cole, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party. "If Republicans attempt to get too creative or overzealous, they could very well run afoul of the Voting Rights Act and current case law."
Whichever plan the Legislature approves must meet U.S. Department of Justice approval because of Mississippi's history of black voter disenfranchisement. In Texas, a redistricting dispute has delayed the state's 2012 primary for months. African American and Latino voters accused the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature of presenting a reapportionment plan that diluted minority voters, who traditionally support Democrats.
The Justice Department also rejected laws in South Carolina and Texas that require voters to present photo ID at the polls, arguing that the laws would have disproportionate negative effect on minorities. Mississippi, which approved a voter ID ballot initiative last fall, must pass enacting legislation before the constitutional amendment can take effect.
Good News for Jackson
Work on a bill that could add millions to the city of Jackson's coffers will hopefully wrap up this week, said the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Jim Evans, D-Jackson.
Last year, the Legislature agreed to let Jackson collect a 1-cent sales tax for infrastructure and public safety improvements if 60 percent of voters approved it and if the city set up a commission to oversee how the money was spent. Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. balked at the idea of having a board of baby sitters tell the city how it could spend its money and never put the question to the voters.
HB 168, which Evans introduced this year, removes the requirement for the oversight commission and gives the city complete control over revenue generated by the tax.
"There's no need for a commission unless the city council and mayor think they need a commission," Evans said.
Over the course of the tax's 20-year lifespan, the city could raise $15 million to $20 million. A conference committee is reviewing HB 168, which passed the House and Senate.
Bad News for Jackson
Thanks to Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, a deal that would have increased activity in downtown Jackson is dead in the water.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who chairs the Senate Public Properties Committee, introduced a bill at the beginning of the legislative session that would move the headquarters of the state Department of Revenue from Clinton to the 345,000 square feet Landmark Center, located at 175 East Capitol St. in downtown.
Blount said his SB 2795 bill died in the House last week, and there's no way to revive it at this point. Boosters for Downtown Jackson accused Gunn, a Republican, of playing politics in keeping the DOR building close to his Clinton district even though it physically sits in Blount's. Gunn did not return a phone message left Tuesday morning.
Gov. Haley Barbour's administration commissioned a study in 2011 that concluded buying the Landmark Building at a cost of $14.1 million would be cheaper than building a new facility on property the state already owns, which consultants Cushman and Wakefield estimated would cost around
Even Worse News for Charters
Despite going to a conference committee this week, the latest attempt to pass legislation establishing charter schools appears to be heading for defeat. House members voted to send HB 1152, which had been modified to include language from a Senate charter school bill that didn't make it out of the House Education Committee, to a conference committee where it will likely die on a procedural vote.
Lt. Gov. Reeves, who, along with the state's other Republican leaders, has pushed for a charter bill all session, called the House vote disappointing. In a statement, Reeves said: "I am disappointed the majority of the members of the House did not agree with the Senate's plan to bring meaningful changes to Mississippi's educational system. Children trapped in failing school districts deserve an opportunity for success, and any further changes would only weaken the effort to give parents a choice in their children's education."
Gov. Phil Bryant, who also supports charter schools, indicated he might extend the legislative calendar by calling a special session to compel lawmakers to pass a charter bill.
Of the possibility of a special session, Reeves' spokeswoman Laura Hipp said in an email: "The Senate has given the House ample opportunity this year to pass meaningful public charter school legislation. Lt. Gov. Reeves believes the Legislature can return in January to pass real education reform that includes public charter schools."