Legislative Update: Tort Reform, Heartbeat Bills, Teacher Pay Moves Forward | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Legislative Update: Tort Reform, Heartbeat Bills, Teacher Pay Moves Forward

Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, speaks on the Mississippi House floor. She was the only Republican who voted against the six-week abortion ban.

Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, speaks on the Mississippi House floor. She was the only Republican who voted against the six-week abortion ban. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

— Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba approached the podium at City Hall late last September to announce a policy that would "put us well on the trajectory of being the radical city that we have proclaimed to become." After a raft of officer-involved shootings, the city would begin releasing the names of law enforcement officers who discharged weapons in the midst of officer-involved shootings within 72 hours, he said.

It was not until January, though, after Jackson Free Press intern reporter Taylor Langele submitted a public-records request that the city began releasing the names of officers involved in nine shootings since Lumumba took office in July 2017. Just as this newspaper's transparency efforts finally paying off, though, lawmakers in the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill to nullify them: House Bill 1289, the Law Enforcement Identity Protection Act, would limit the release of the names of officers involved in non-fatal shootings.

During floor debate on Feb. 12, Rep. Christopher Bell, a Jackson Democrat, pushed back against the proposed legislation. "When anyone else is accused of crimes, are their identities not published?" Bell, who is black, asked the white sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon. "Are their mugshots not taken and published in the newspaper?"

"If you want a bill that protects the identities of criminals, or people accused of crimes, you can bring that out," Baker shot back. "This bill is to give the officer a little breathing room.... He has to worry about the internal investigation, and, at the same time, his spouse and his children."

Initially, the bill would have required that officers' names be withheld until the completion of an investigation. That raised concerns on the House floor that, if an investigation went on too long, it could run out the statutory clock on legal claims that victims and victims' families could bring. Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, introduced an amendment requiring that local governments release the names of officers involved in shootings within 180 days. The House adopted it by a voice vote.

Though Baker argued that releasing officers' names would be akin to "throwing (officers) to the wolves," the 72-hour waiting period is part of a national set of best practices recommended by the Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Justice Department to increase public trust and add an extra layer of accountability.

Tort Reform Bill Raises Concerns

On Feb. 7, Mississippi senators passed a bill to cut down on lawsuits against property owners, but strong opposition remains among law enforcement, advocates for victims of domestic violence and lawyers.

Senate Bill 2901, also known as the Landowners Protection Act, would protect property owners from being sued if a third party causes an injury on their property. Under the bill, a property owner would only be held liable if he or she "actively and affirmatively, with a degree of conscious decision-making, impelled the conduct of said third party."

In a Feb. 4 letter to lawmakers, Washington County Sheriff Milton Gaston Sr. warned that it would increase the burden on law enforcement, because business owners would no longer invest as much in things like surveillance equipment, private security and lighting.

"You need them to micromanage everyone's property because it will save those who can afford to pay for their own insurance and protection even more money," he wrote.

District Attorney Scott Colom, who represents the 16th Judicial Circuit, also wrote a letter warning that with less private surveillance, "law enforcement would be hampered in solving crimes" like rape and child abduction. He could foresee "instances where a violent criminal may walk free due to insufficient evidence."

Insurance companies have an interest in the legislation, wrote Virginia Kramer, a criminal defense attorney in Quitman.

"Our local politicians and law enforcement officials oppose this bill, too," she wrote in a Feb. 6 Facebook post. "These insurance companies aren't patrolling our counties, they aren't watching over our jails, and they aren't present in our courtrooms. We are. And we know what's going to happen if this bill becomes law."

Though Republicans overwhelmingly backed the bill, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, a former prosecutor, explained in a Feb. 7 Facebook post that he shared the same concerns as Colom and Gaston, and chose not to "go along with the crowd and outside interests."

The "outside interests" Wiggins alludes to include pro-business organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Mississippi Association of Affordable Housing Providers and the Southwest Mississippi Board of Realtors, which traveled to the Mississippi Capitol on Feb. 8 to encourage representatives to pass the House version. The bill's principal author, Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Brandon, is a real-estate broker himself and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, which also supports his tort-reform bill.

Instead of focusing on how the bill helps businesses, though, Republicans—the bill's primary backers—often sought to cast the bill as one aimed at helping farmers. On SuperTalk FM, GOP chairman Lucien Smith suggested it would help, for example, a farmer with a "600-acre farm" who could not be expected to patrol and stop every crime that a visitor might commit.

Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant, also tried to tie opposition to the bill to "the trial lobby," with the implicit suggestion that the concerns raised about the bill amounts to scare tactics from lawyers worried that they will make less money due to decreased litigation. That is a Republican tactic straight from the early 2000s era of tort reform, when Republicans in the state supported it at the behest of national business lobbyists pushing for limits on litigation. The GOP, then the minority party in Mississippi, used it as a wedge issue to help seize control of state government.

"The pursuit of tort reform became the most emotional and influential wedge issue Mississippi politics had spawned in thirty years, and it aided Republicans by separating business campaign contributions from Democrats and by drying up trial lawyer campaign contributions to Democrats," wrote Mississippi political strategists Jere Nash and Andy Taggart in their book, "Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power 1976-2006." Nash is a Democrat, and Taggart is a Republican.

The bill now goes to the Republican-dominated House. If they approve it, Bryant has already indicated he will sign it into law. A separate but nearly identical tort-reform bill died, House Bill 337, died in the House after the Senate passed its version.

De Facto Six-Week Abortion Ban

On Feb. 13, the House and Senate passed "fetal heartbeat" bills, which ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected. Doctors can detect heartbeats as early as six weeks, making it a de facto ban on almost all abortions. The heartbeat bills include exceptions for cases where a pregnancy imperils a woman's life, but an effort by some lawmakers to amend the Senate bill to also include exceptions for rape and incest failed.

Last year, a federal judge put a halt on the Legislature's 15-week ban, all but guaranteeing that this bill, if it becomes law, will be blocked as well. Republicans on the Senate floor made it clear, though, that their aim in passing these bills is to trigger a court challenge that could make it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. With President Trump's latest right-wing appointee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, now on the court, Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, speculated during debate on Feb. 13, bans like these could be upheld. Their goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that made abortion a constitutionally protected right.

In the House, nine Democrats joined all but one Republican in voting to pass the bill. Eight of the nine Democrats who voted for it are white men, and Oxford Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes, a candidate for lieutenant governor, suggested in letters to angry voters that white Democrats consider anti-abortion votes necessary to keep their seats.

"Eight of us are moderates and trying to avoid the Republican goal of eliminating all white (Democrats), so it will fit the claim that you can't be white or moderate and be a Democrat in Mississippi," Hughes wrote several voters, who posted screenshots to social media. "This deception would further the goal of absolute control and further repressive laws against all, and in favor of a few."

The lone House Republican to vote against the bill, Hattiesburg Rep. Missy McGee, cited her Christian faith and concerns about the lack of exceptions.

"This was a bill that was pushed through committee last week at the 11th hour on a deadline day," she wrote on Facebook on Feb. 13. "No hearings. No exceptions for rape or incest. No exceptions for if a 100% fatal genetic abnormality is found later in the pregnancy."

McGee, who considers herself "pro-life," wrote that she "struggled" with her decision.

"As one of only 15 women in a legislative body of 122 members, I cannot support legislation that makes such hard line, final decisions for other women," she wrote. "Because, in fact, there are painful and heart-wrenching circumstances that do arise and should allow a woman to confer with her faith, her doctor, and her family to make what will surely be one of—if not THE—most difficult decision of her life."

While her vote engendered anger among some conservatives across the state, she earned plaudits at home—and a standing ovation when she showed up for the launch of a new Hattiesburg brewery.

"You know your representative @MissyWMcGee had a solid week in the minds of her constituents when she walks into the new brewpub & folks break into applause," Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker tweeted on Feb. 15, with the hashtag, #OurRepresentative. Barker, now an independent, previously held McGee's House seat, where he was known for breaking with his party at times, too. In 2014 and 2016, he was the only Republican to vote against legislation aimed at enabling businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers.

Fits and Starts for Criminal Reform

On Feb. 7, the House passed House Bill 1352, named the Criminal Justice Reform Act. If it becomes law, the state would expand its "drug courts," renamed "intervention courts," to handle cases involving mental illness and military veterans. It would also end the practice of the State revoking driver's licenses for unpaid fines, or suspending them for those convicted of simple drug possession unrelated to the operation of a motor vehicle. It would also allow the expungement of more crimes.

In a committee meeting on Jan. 31, the bill's principal author, Rep. Jason White, R-West, admitted the bill does not go as far as it could.

"Though these are meaningful steps, maybe they are baby steps in this reform," White said. "And maybe that's where we need to be."

The bill's fate now rests in the hands of the Senate where a more ambitious criminal-justice reform bill died on Valentine's Day. Senate Bill 2927, sponsored by Pascagoula Republican Brice Wiggins, would have reduced the felonies for the first and second drug-possession charges to felonies. It also would have cut into three-strikes law that mandate longer prison terms for those convicted of three felonies by nullifying it in cases where there are ten or more years between crimes. Upon release, no one could be supervised under parole or probation for more than two years—down from the current five.

$1,000 Teacher Pay Raise

On Feb. 13, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would phase in a $1,000 teacher pay raise between 2020 and 2021. The pay raise, which would amount to an additional $83.34 per month on average once fully phased in, is just over a third of what would be needed to keep up with inflation since the Legislature last approved a pay raise of $2,500 in 2014.

Teachers would need to make nearly $47,500 to equal, in 2019 dollars, the 2014 purchasing power of the $44,659 they made after that raise fully kicked in, the U.S. Inflation Calculator shows. That would require a raise of 6.3 percent—not the 2.2 percent increase this bill grants.

Democrats in the Senate attempted to double the raise on an amendment, but Republicans defeated the move. A Feb. 15 joint statement of the House Democratic Caucus and the Black Caucus called the proposed raise "embarrassing."

"As we look to address the certified teacher shortage crisis in earnest, we need to make significant investments in teacher pay," the statement read. "It's not enough to throw a couple of election year bonuses at the problem. We must provide an immediate pay bump and recalibrate the pay scale we can begin paying teachers the Southeastern average. Otherwise, we will continue to see Mississippi-trained educators fleeing the state for higher pay and better resources."

In his January State of the State Address, Gov. Phil Bryant requested a 3-percent pay increase of $1,580.

Public-education advocates did score a victory in another arena, as bills aimed at expanding access to publicly funded vouchers for private schools died.

Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at 
@ashtonpittman. Email story tips to ashton@jacksonfreepress.com. Donna Ladd contributed to this round-up.

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