While the Mississippi Legislature advances several pieces of substantial legislation, some lawmakers appear to be gearing up to seek higher office. And voters this year will be subjected to new party primary rules due to a bill that the House passed Feb. 12.
After state Sen. Chris McDaniel's messy Republican primary race against U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, politicians questioned the strength of Mississippi's election law, which prohibits voters from crossing party lines to vote in a runoff.
One notable moment of the U.S. Senate race involved McDaniel gathering Facebook posts showing that some people who voted for Cochran intended to vote for Travis Childers in the general election—which McDaniel claimed proved illegal voting activity. House Bill 1069 would remove the law's requirement that a person have the "intent" to vote for the same party's candidate in both the primary and in the general election.
The bill could alleviate these concerns and eliminate politicians' ability to make these difficult-to-prove accusations, House Elections Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, suggested.
Voting in one party primary, then crossing party lines to vote in the opposite party's primary runoff is already illegal, and remains illegal under this bill.
The bill would also create criminal penalties and a fine up to $200 for people who attempt to cross party lines to vote in a runoff. Currently, the law only creates penalties for voters who try to vote more than once or in both party primaries on the same day. Rims Barber, a civil-rights veteran, said he is worried the new law might penalize voters even if they came to the wrong poll mistakenly.
Another heated McDaniel-led battle between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment may occur this election year, because McDaniel's support group Facebook page changed its name to "Friends of Chris McDaniel for Lieutenant Governor."
Scott Brewster—Facebook page moderator, former McDaniel campaign staffer and one of the Tea Party members officials found locked in the Hinds County Courthouse the night of the June 3, 2014, U.S. Senate primary—changed the group's name a few hours after McDaniel's political page published a post asking its followers if they supported Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for reelection.
While McDaniel hasn't released an official statement of intent to run for higher office, his super PAC, United Conservative Fund, is raising money and support. If he runs for lieutenant governor, he will be running against incumbent Reeves in the Republican primary. Former Republican and Elvis Presley impersonator Tim Johnson is running for the Democratic nomination.
All this is to say, this election season could get wacky in the same way last year's did. Still, legislators are getting some stuff done despite the political theatrics.
In the Senate, over six hours of debate on Feb. 11 resulted in lawmakers' moving to: repeal the motor vehicle safety inspection law, ask the federal government to balance its budget, enact the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs and create a commission to replace Common Core standards. Simultaneously, the House passed a bill that could greatly affect the future of third-grade students in the state.
Safety an Inconvenience?
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2518 with few voting in opposition to getting rid of the vehicle-inspection sticker requirement for Mississippi drivers.
The law, which Sen. Giles Ward, R-Louisville, described as having "outlived its usefulness," required vehicle owners to pay $5 to have their vehicles inspected each year.
Some senators, including Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenhall, expressed concern that freeing drivers from their duty to have their vehicle annually inspected may be dangerous and cause the roads to be filled with more unsafe vehicles. "
"We're talking about human life," said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.
Above Their Pay Grade
With a 29-18 vote, the Senate passed SB 2389, which is a symbolic move for those who want a balanced federal budget. Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, introduced the bill, saying that it essentially just sends a message to the federal government, urging it to limit its spending, even as Mississippi is one of the biggest beneficiaries of federal dollars.
Democrats pressed Fillingane, worried that the bill would prevent Mississippi from getting needed federal dollars.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, noted that SB 2389 is an American Legislative Exchange Council bill, considering that it is nearly identical to a bill ALEC drafted. When Blount asked why Mississippi would need to take measures to balance the federal budget instead of letting the U.S. speaker of the House of Representatives handle it, Fillingane said, "We all need encouragement."
Education A Big Fight
The Legislature's biggest fights surround public education. Lawmakers are trying to decide whether to fund, whether to privatize and whether or not to hold back children who are not reading on grade level.
Amidst the passage of legislation supposedly geared toward tackling education issues in the state, some Mississippi lawmakers are highlighting the struggle around race in the state's education system—and showing their true colors.
In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Rep. Gene Alday, R-Walls, said the state doesn't need greater education funding. Then he began to describe the problems in the districts with poor-performing schools.
"(A)ll the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call 'welfare crazy checks.' They don't work," Alday said, repeating falsehoods that Mississippi racists have long repeated about African Americans.
Privatizing Special Education
The Senate passed Senate Bill 2695, which would give a $7,000 scholarship account to parents of students with special needs, 27-21. The program, which is similar to one proposed in a bill that failed in the House last year, has been the point of much controversy, as it has been labeled a voucher. The parent could spend the money on a number of approved services and tools, including tuition to private school.
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, presented the bill to her colleagues, assuring them that the money used for the scholarships will not be taken out of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program or the district. Democrats, again, pressed her, noting that the bill serve only a small fraction of the 63,000 students with special needs in the state.
Collins repeated many times that she had Mississippi children in mind when authoring this bill—especially the disadvantaged ones.
"The poorest children have the fewest options," Collins said, whereas wealthy parents can sue the school district to try to get services.
Democrats noted, however, that the scholarships are first-come first-serve, and that disadvantaged parents probably won't have the same knowledge and accessibility of the scholarships as wealthy parents.
Getting Rid of Common Core
A new commission, made up of educational professionals and parents, would create new standards to replace Common Core under a bill the Senate passed. The body spent upward of one and a half hours discussing an amendment to the bill proposed by Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, that would bind the state to following the commission's recommendations.
Conservative caucus members Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, and Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, all got behind Hill's amendment and all vehemently claimed that if lawmakers didn't vote for the amendment, they could not leave the Senate floor and claim to be against Common Core.
"Without implementation of this amendment, we've done nothing," McDaniel said. The amendment failed 37-13. The Senate then passed SB 2161 to replace Common Core with only 14 voting against it.
Future of Fourth Grade
Students with special needs, who have an Individualized Education Plan, would be exempt from being held back a grade due to the third-grade reading gate under the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which the House passed last week.
Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, introduced a successful amendment to the bill, HB 745, to delay the gate one year for all students, which the House passed.
The third-grade gate, a keystone of Gov. Phil Bryant's education reform last year, could have held back around 6,500 students who are not ready to pass the literacy test, she said when asking for a ramp-up period.
Gov. Phil Bryant responded to the House's decision to delay the gate with a statement that read, "With votes like this, it is little wonder that Mississippi's public education system has been an abysmal failure."
The House also advanced legislation to raise teacher assistant pay to $15,000 annually, a $2,500 increase.