The Curious Case of What the #MSLeg Passed, What It Didn’t | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Curious Case of What the #MSLeg Passed, What It Didn’t

House Speaker Philip Gunn (pictured) expressed disappointment that the campaign-finance and election-reform bill died this session, while Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says he believes in unlimited campaign contributions and disclosure.

House Speaker Philip Gunn (pictured) expressed disappointment that the campaign-finance and election-reform bill died this session, while Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says he believes in unlimited campaign contributions and disclosure. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

With their right to spend their campaign donations on mortgages, automobiles, clothing, tuition payments or non-documented loans still firmly in place, state lawmakers closed up shop early and skipped town last week.

They rushed out without making domestic abuse grounds for divorce or reforming election spending, but managed to pass a hefty tax cut and slash several state agency budgets before the Capitol doors closed behind them.

The Senate adjourned last Wednesday, and the House adjourned early Thursday morning. Technically, the last day of the session was Sunday, April 24, but lawmakers got to leave work early after the Senate suspended business on Wednesday, leaving several significant pieces of legislation that needed more conference work to die from lack of completion.

Planned Parenthood Nipped

The state's one Planned Parenthood clinic will lose Medicaid reimbursements if Gov. Phil Bryant signs a bill headed to his desk, after the Senate voted to confirm the conference report on Wednesday before adjourning for the session. The bill would prevent the state's Division of Medicaid from reimbursing the one Mississippi Planned Parenthood clinic, located in Hattiesburg, which only offers birth control, pregnancy care, and sexually transmitted infections testing, services and treatment.

The state's division of Medicaid has paid the Hattiesburg clinic a total of $384 since fiscal-year 2014 in fee-for-service claims and $53 in encounter claims. In total, the state's Division of Medicaid has reimbursed its one Planned Parenthood clinic less than $500 in the past three years, division data show.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, presented the conference report on the Senate floor last Wednesday, noting that the language in the bill changed to not explicitly say "Planned Parenthood" but instead restrict Medicaid payments to "any entity that performs nontherapeutic abortions, maintains or operates a facility where nontherapeutic abortions are performed or is affiliated with such an entity."

Wiggins said the language is borrowed from the Harris v. McRae court case, which was the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case that determined states did not have to use Medicaid funding for even medically necessary abortions.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, questioned Wiggins about how the bill would affect the state's admitting-privileges law (a case that is tied up in the U.S. Supreme Court pending petition), and Wiggins said the bill did not address abortion specifically.

"Does current state law prohibit any state funds from being spent on abortion?" Blount asked.

"Yes," Wiggins said.

Later, Wiggins also confirmed that the law was only about Medicaid reimbursements and not abortion.

"We are not outlawing or addressing the practice of abortion. We are only talking about the Medicaid side of it," Wiggins said.

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Debbie Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, expressed distaste for how the conference report was written, pointing out that no women were named as conferees.

"There are six guys making decisions about family-planning services for all the women in Mississippi," Dawkins told the Senate.

The conference report passed anyway by a vote of 38-12.

Planned Parenthood Southeast is calling on Gov. Bryant to veto the bill when it reaches his desk. Felicia Brown-Williams, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast, said in a statement: "If Governor Bryant truly wants to reduce the need for abortion in Mississippi, the best way to do that is to expand access to contraceptives through proven programs like the Medicaid Family Planning Program. Prohibiting PPSE from participating in the Medicaid Family Planning Program would not only be a blatant violation of federal law, it flies in the face of the governor's own goals."

The Mississippi Division of Medicaid offers a family-planning waiver program for men and women aged 13 to 44 years of age that provides them with family-planning services. In order to be eligible for this waiver program, a man or woman must have a family income at or below 194 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal poverty level for individuals is $11,880, so 194 percent of that number would mean Medicaid would reimburse an individual up to $23,000 and below. For a family of two, the federal poverty level is $16,020, so the state's Division of Medicaid would cover a family of two up to $31,000 income.

Secrecy In, Firing Squads Out

On their last day in session, the Senate also sent the execution team bill that protects the identities of the execution team and any Mississippi supplier of lethal-injection chemicals and keeps them exempt from disclosure under the state's Public Records Act.

Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, told the Senate that all the prior-restraint language was removed from the bill, however. Previous versions of the bill allowed a person whose identity was disclosed, such as by a media outlet, the right to sue for damages, but those sections of the bill were taken out in conference.

Also gone is the amendment added on the House floor to make execution by firing squad a viable backup if lethal injection drugs were not available.

When asked if Tindell had gotten a response from the media about the bill, he told the Senate that "they dislike it less than they did before."

The bill also provides immunity for state workers on the execution team if they get sued for carrying out the duties and business of the state.

The ACLU of Mississippi is opposed to the bill and the death penalty in general and is asking Gov. Phil Bryant to veto it.

ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins said in a statement: "We oppose the death penalty altogether. However, as long as Mississippi continues to sentence people to death, executions must remain transparent and our state government must remain accountable."

Target: 'Spice'

The governor could sign a law that increases penalties for the sale or possession of or possession with intent to sell synthetic cannabinoids, often called "spice." The bill would not change current penalties for marijuana, but punishments for synthetic cannabinoids will increase. A person would now serve no more than three years or pay a fine of no more than $3,000 for possession with intent to sell of 10 grams or less of a synthetic cannabinoid. A person would pay a fine of $100 to $250 for simple possession of 10 grams or less of "spice."

Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, who spoke on the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, said the bill came about as a response to recent deaths in the state due to spice.

"The number is about 17 recent deaths in Mississippi, as it relates to people spraying stuff on some plant whether it's marijuana or a leaf and they enhance the effectiveness of it, and it's been lethal," Simmons said.

The bill does not change punishments for marijuana possession or for other Schedule I drugs.

Goodbye, Election Reform

The 200-plus-page election-code bill, which contained several revisions including implementing poll-manager training programs and reducing the number of paper ballots printed, died in conference. The campaign-finance-reform portion of the bill, which would prohibit the personal use of campaign spending, was also left for another year.

The House of Representatives had a long and contentious debate on the election-reform bill, House Bill 797, last Tuesday, but voted to recommit the bill for further conference. That conference never happened, and the bill died there.

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Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, authored the bill to make domestic violence grounds for divorce in Mississippi. But the bill died after the Senate sent it back to conference—and then ended the session early and went home the next day.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, worked on the bill throughout the session and helped with the conference report. She said that while she was disappointed that the bill did not pass, that another year would give those who worked on the bill more time to make members of both chambers more comfortable with the changes.

"We're going to have to address campaign-finance reform in Mississippi, if not this year, then next year or the year after," Doty told the Jackson Free Press.

Doty said she understands concerns from longtime members about changing the rules that will make reporting campaign-finance expenditures more detailed.

"I firmly believe it's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game, but it's time to start," she said. "Within a couple of election cycles, we'll have everybody on board—we'll do round two next year."

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, expressed disappointment that the election-reform bill did not pass.

"I helped write the conference report; it wouldn't have come to the floor if I didn't want it to come to the floor," Gunn told reporters Thursday after the House had adjourned. "I was disappointed it did not pass; we will continue to work on that, I felt like that was a good piece of legislation."

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves reiterated his stance on campaign finance for reporters on Thursday. "I believe in unlimited contributions and unlimited disclosure," he said. Reeves has $3.4 million of campaign cash on hand.

Reeves said it was likely that the Legislature would look at the election-reform bill next year again. When asked about the personal-use section of the bill, he said he does not spend any of his campaign funds on anything personal. Reeves said he spends a lot of money making sure campaign-finance disclosure occurs. He said three of the eight full-time staffers he had on his 2015 election campaign focused on his campaign finances, and that those running smaller campaigns might find it harder to afford to pay for those services.

No Divorce for Abuse

An abused Mississippi spouse still can't use domestic violence as grounds for divorce, thanks to lawmakers' exit without taking action on the bill.

Sen. Doty's effort to make domestic violence the 13th ground for divorce in the state died after the Senate voted to recommit the bill to conference on Tuesday. Some senators expressed concern over the conference report mainly because it contained a new 14th ground for divorce: after a willful and continued separation without cohabitation or intent to return for two years, either party could file for a divorce.

The 14th ground was not in Doty's original bill, which was intended to address domestic violence in marriages.

Judiciary A Committee Chairman Sen. Tindell confirmed on the Senate floor that the 14th ground was added in conference; similar bills suggesting a divorce ground for separation over longer periods of time had died in committee earlier in the session. He said that the 14th ground would not interfere with a spouse's ability to seek alimony, custody or support immediately after a spouse leaves.

Speaking against the conference report, Sen. Angela Turner, D-West Point, expressed concern about the 14th ground added in conference. Currently, she said, an abandoned spouse seeking a divorce after six months still does not have a ground until a year has gone by; the fourth ground for divorce in Mississippi allows the abandoned spouse to file for divorce a year later.

"But to allow someone to leave the home for two years, and that's all they have to do, they've abandoned the house, children, may have left the mortgage unpaid, they have the right to come and petition for divorce, I could not stay in my chair," Turner said.

She said adding a 14th ground seemed like a major undertaking for so late in the session.

Tindell said one of the issues that comes up in divorce cases is when a spouse is forced to stay in that marriage because of abuse, something that the 14th ground could potentially fix.

Speaker Pro Tempore Terry Burton, R-Newton, told the Senate that if they recommitted the bill to conference it would not die if the House chose to recommit the bill to conference as well.

The Senate voted 26-22 to recommit the bill to conference. Another conference report was filed at some point after that vote that extended the 14th ground to be a three-year separation, but neither chamber took up that conference report before they left—thus a bill that originally was intended to make domestic violence grounds for divorce died.

Doty said she was disappointed that the bill didn't pass.

"I don't think there was a real understanding of what that 14th ground was in the Senate, so hopefully next year we can just file it (the bill) straight with domestic violence, and it won't have it tagged on to it," she said.

Lt. Gov. Reeves said lawmakers always leave some things undone in a session and said he takes a slightly different approach than most legislative leaders.

"My view is when it comes to any single piece of legislation, Mississippi has been a state now for 199 years. If we've made it this long without any single piece of legislation becoming law, we probably can make it one more year," Reeves told reporters on Thursday. "And whether we like it or not, we're going to be back here in January, and we'll have the opportunity to fix anything that didn't get done."

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at Arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara. For more state coverage, visit jfp.ms/state.

Public Education Still Under-Funded, 'Choice' Expanded

From funding woes to charter schools, the topic of Mississippi public education saw controversy at the Capital this session. Although MAEP funding will stay the (still underfunded) same as it was last year, the Mississippi Schools of the Blind and the Deaf will receive $300,000 in budget cuts for the next fiscal year. Here's some other education legislation Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law this session.

HB 33 - the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act

This bill expands the eligibility for students seeking Special Needs Act vouchers, which are generally allocated toward services like private school education for special needs students. With this law, students who've had an IEP for the last five years instead of the last 18 months at the time of application may apply for the vouchers, opening eligibility for students already enrolled in private schools.

SB 2161 - Amendments to the Mississippi Charter Schools Act

Students attending schools in C, D or F districts may now attend charter schools located outside their school districts. The only charter schools in the state are located in Jackson, and the number will increase by the end of the year. Jackson Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharolyn Miller said before House and Senate Democrats that JPS gave charter schools $565,000 this school year for the 221 JPS former JPS students enrolled there.

Superintendent Dr. Cedrick Gray says he believes that the district will end up shelling out $5 million from its local tax contributions to charter schools within 5 years, should the number of schools continue to harvest a greater number of children from his district.

SB 2438 - Requires appointment of all superintendents after Jan. 1, 2019

Mississippi is one of the last few states to allow the election of school superintendents. Their elected school boards with this law will appoint all superintendents. Superintendents currently elected will serve the rest of their terms before appointment begins.

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Follow her on Twitter @SierraMannie.

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