Can’t Get Enough | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Can’t Get Enough

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves buckled this week and agreed to a compromise that adopts the House version of the charter-school bill that contained provisions he previously rejected.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves buckled this week and agreed to a compromise that adopts the House version of the charter-school bill that contained provisions he previously rejected. Photo by R.L. Nave.

By this time next week--barring Gov. Phil Bryant calling for a special session--the 2013 legislative will be over.

The most foreboding question facing lawmakers involves the future of the Medicaid program. For the fourth time, with Democrats leading the charge, the House voted against the Medicaid program. Democrats are holding up reauthorization and funding of Medicaid in the current fiscal year to force an up or down vote on Medicaid expansion that the federal health-care mandate allows.

"The decision by House Republican leadership and the governor to not allow a full debate, much less a vote, on Medicaid expansion, could cost the taxpayers $30,000 per day if a special session is called," House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, told reporters. In the meantime, Republicans are playing the part of compassionate conservatives and blaming Democrats for risking the health of more than 700,000 poor and elderly Medicaid enrollees.

For the time being, with three-fifths of votes needed--about 60--to move any Medicaid measure forward, the parties are at loggerheads: Democrats don't have the votes for expansion, and Republicans don't have the votes to pass Medicaid without at least debating expansion.

Meanwhile, another of the session's most contentious issues, a charter-school bill, cleared a big hurdle this week. After debating the issue well past midnight earlier in the session, the House approved a charter-school bill without a peep from opponents.

The fate of charter-school legislation seemed murky up until last night when the Republican leaders of the House and Senate worked out a compromise. Under the deal, announced late on the evening of April 1, the Senate agreed to the House's version of the bill, which gave school boards in C-rated school districts veto power over any new, proposed charter schools in that district. Previously, the Senate wanted charter schools in C districts, which became a sticking point that threatened to thwart charter-school efforts altogether.

"Though we hoped for a bill that would not send the message that 'C' was OK in Mississippi, we agreed to compromise to give 125,000 Mississippi children an opportunity for success," Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement on the compromise.

Under the statewide accountability standards, Jackson Public Schools has an overall "D" rating. JPS officials did not respond to an email seeking the district's reaction by press time Tuesday.

Jackson Mostly Shafted

The House and Senate agreed to a $196.4-million bond bill to pay for construction, mostly at Mississippi colleges and universities. This sum includes $31 million toward a new medical school for the University of Mississippi in Jackson and $11.3 million to Jackson State University for repairs to the Margaret Walker Alexander Center and the school of education, and for furniture at a building JSU owns in downtown Jackson.

Noticeably absent, however, were any funds for the proposed 50,000-seat state-of-the-art domed stadium that JSU envisions will accommodate football and basketball games as well as serve as a concert venue.

Some African American members of the House Democratic caucus railed against what they perceived to be the latest in years' worth of slights to Jackson State.

"It's a very storied athletic program, and they deserve to have a stadium on their campus," said Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, a JSU alumnus. Jackson State, whose officials had no comment, had requested $75 million over three years to help offset the estimated $200 million price tag.

This followed last week's decision by the Department of Finance and Administration to relocate the state Department of Revenue to Clinton over the Landmark Center in downtown Jackson and other locations in the capital city area. In its recommendation, DFA stated that the Clinton site--the former WorldCom headquarters--was the cheapest option, but DFA's request for proposals reveals that the agency only considered leasing, not purchasing. Leasing the Landmark center would have cost taxpayers $51.7 million compared to $41 million for WorldCom building. However, the state could have saved millions of dollars by buying the Landmark building outright, which lists for around $7.5 million.

Downtown booster Leland Speed released a statement calling for a probe into the DOR's decision, but said he has not received a response from House Speaker Philip Gunn, who represents Clinton.

"I expect people to balance the wider good with their own personal interest," Speed said of Gunn. Earlier in the session, a local-option sales tax proposal that would have allowed Jackson to hold an election to raise money for capital projects died.

One bright spot remains for Jackson: The bond bill's conference report provides for an unspecified amount for the repair and rehabilitation, or replacement and reconstruction, of the Woodrow Wilson Avenue Bridge in Jackson. The city will get $3 million for the project.

More Abortion Regs

Legislators mostly eschewed some of the more controversial reproductive health bills this session. Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, did file a bill prohibiting doctors from performing abortions when a fetal heartbeat is present, but it never made it out of committee. Instead, the abortion cause celebre this time around was regulating abortion drugs.

Senate Bill 2795, which defines an unborn child as the "offspring of human beings from conception until birth," would restrict the use of mifepristone (formerly known as RU-486) and misoprostol, passed the House 84-30 and went to the Senate for approval.

SB 2795's provision would force women taking the drugs to see their doctors at least four times, which opponents say will make their use prohibitively expensive, especially for uninsured women. It bars women from taking misoprostol at home, which is the current practice, and also prohibits doctors from consulting women about using the drugs remotely via teleconference.

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