The Influencers | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Influencers

Lawmakers returned to the Mississippi Capitol this week for the 2014 legislative session.

Lawmakers returned to the Mississippi Capitol this week for the 2014 legislative session. Photo by Trip Burns.

In the mid-1850s, Samuel Colt needed a seven-year extension of the patent on his legendary revolver, so he decided to petition members of Congress—and their wives and children.

Colt's competitors blasted the campaign as tantamount to bribery, which eventually prompted an inquest, revealing that Colt had staged "lavish entertainments for wavering senators" and that his representatives had presented gifts of Colt pistols to certain congressmen and at least one to a lawmaker's son, who was no more than 12 years old.

The investigative committee's report into Colt's activities stated: "The money has been used, as the evidence shows, in paying the costs and charges incurred in getting up costly and extravagant entertainments, to which ladies and members of Congress and others were invited, with a view of furthering the success of this measure. The ladies, having been first duly impressed with the importance of Colt's pistol extension by presents of Parisian gloves, are invited to these entertainments."

It was during these "entertainments" when Colt's agents would make their pitches to ask the Congress members to support the patent extension.

Not a lot has changed in the past century and a half.

Lobbyists remain one of the most formidable forces in Congress and under capitol domes around the nation. Lobbying, which the U.S. Constitution protects as a form of free speech, has at times precipitated scandals and, at other times, ushered landmark legislation. Mississippi is no exception. Legislators and policymakers rely on lobbyists, who represent corporations, nonprofits and government agencies—or, sometimes all of them—to explain the complicated legislation before them.

Cecil Brown, a Democrat from Jackson, said lobbyists and other public-interest groups are a valuable source of information, helping sort out the hundreds of bills that come before legislators during the session. When a lobbyist requests a meeting, Brown asks two questions: "Who do you work for?" and "Who's on the other side?" And they're usually honest, Brown said.

Lobbyists, and the lawmakers they want to influence, descended on the Mississippi Capitol for the 2014 legislative session, which began Jan. 7 at noon.

This year, lobbyists could be more influential than they have in years past. At the beginning of the term, when Republicans took control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time more than a century, the party laid out a broad agenda. Thanks to the mechanics of the legislative process, power jockeying among key Republican players and some shrewd maneuvering by Democrats, it took a while for the GOP leadership to get items on their wish lists.

Much of that was achieved in 2012 and 2013, with the passage of strict abortion regulations and education reform that included expanding the presence of charter schools. Lawmakers also passed the first bond bill for construction projects it had in many years.

Republicans having gotten so much of what they wanted has created some oxygen for lawmakers to start listening to constituent groups, including business, civic and social-justice organizations.

We'll see how that plays out.

The Rules

Despite the popular image—and some notoriously unscrupulous practitioners—state law binds the state's lobbyists to strict rules.

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's office enforces regulations of campaign-finance laws, which extends to lobbyists. Lobbyists are defined broadly, but anyone who meets the definition must register with the secretary of state. The state's 2014 lobbying handbook defines lobbying as the: "influencing or attempting to influence legislative or executive action through oral or written communication. ... solicitation of others to influence legislative or executive action. ... (or) paying or promising to pay anything of value directly or indirectly related to legislative or executive action."

However, exceptions exist. Elected officials acting in their official capacity do not have to register as lobbyists nor do private citizens representing themselves, people who do not get paid or receive "anything of value for lobbying," or people who do provide anything less than $200 in value per year.

Lobbyists must file an end-of-session report, which provides a snapshot of activities during the session, within 10 days of sine die, or adjournment. Then, annual reports are due Jan. 30 of each year, meaning the public cannot get a clear picture of a lobbyist's activities until almost a year later.

State law also prohibits lobbying contracts from guaranteeing specific outcomes, nor are lobbyists supposed to receive bonuses from their employers, said Willie Bozeman, a former state representative, who has been a lobbyist since 2000.

Unlike some lobbyists who represent a single client or focus on one issue, Bozeman has several clients—including Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. and the Southern Poverty Law Center—which would seemingly would pull a person's attention in a number of directions.

Not so, Bozeman said. "We represent the clients' interests. It's not a juggling process. You're hired to do a certain thing and in order to uphold your end of the process, you make it work. It's the same as being hired by any employer. Your passion is to your employer," he said.

Fighting Over Money

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Once again, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, will be a central figure in the Medicaid expansion debate.

Mississippi's economy is not growing as quickly as the national economy, but state revenues are trending upward, creating opportunities for groups to clamor for funding.

State revenue has grown about 5 percent annually for each of the past two years, while spending has increased about 2 percent a year. In his executive budget recommendation, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant proposed a state spending plan that would put more money into education and public safety, including prisons, but does not increase taxes or fees. Bryant's budget proposes spending $6.1 billion during fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1. That sum includes all but two percent of a $5.4 billion revenue projection.

"This budget addresses state priorities with three guiding principles in mind: spending prudently, saving for the future and prioritizing the core functions of government," Bryant said when he unveiled the budget this fall.

Bryant's budget, which is only a recommendation that will have to be reconciled with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee plan, is $5.3 billion and contains less money that Bryant wants to spend for his ambitious prison reform agenda.

Neither budget proposal fully funds the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which the Legislature instituted in 1996 to ensure that all school districts would receive equitable funding levels.

Legislative leaders who control the purse strings to the treasurer have only said that the state's economic footing is still too unsure to fully fund MAEP this year, which has not received its full allotment for more than three years, putting the state's public schools more than $1 billion in the red.

In 2014, Brown said Democrats will push for more involvement from its constituents to ratchet up the political pressure on Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Reeves and Bryant. To offset the Legislature's failure to give schools the money they need to perform adequately, local school districts have had to raise property taxes, Brown said.

"There's money there; there's not the will," Brown, a former House Education Committee chairman, said of full MAEP funding.

The other huge battle of wills expected to again play out this year is over Medicaid expansion. The federal Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2012, permits states to loosen eligibility requirements for the state-federal health-care program for low-income people, but some states with Republican governors, including Mississippi, have disavowed Medicaid expansion.

Lawmakers debated Medicaid expansion during a special session last year, but ended up reauthorizing the Medicaid program without the expansion. However, the door remains open for another debate, and possible expansion, of Medicaid in 2014.

"We have an opportunity to do something smart," Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, told the Jackson Free Press in December.

This time around, Medicaid proponents will have some new ammunition.

Researchers David Becker and Michael Morrisey, both researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, affirms previous studies showing millions of dollars in additional economic activity would come from adding more people to the state-run insurance program for the poor.

Even with the intense debate of the last year or so, the conversation over Medicaid expansion in Mississippi has focused on the costs and benefits to the state and to the health-care industry in broad terms. Becker's report, commissioned by one group promoting Medicaid expansion, goes a step further and looks at Medicaid expansion's effects on regions and local communities. It shows that billions of dollars are at stake in Medicaid.

"It's a deal that seems too good to pass up," said Becker, speaking at the Jackson Medical Mall Dec. 12.

That deal is outlined in Becker and Morrissey's analysis showing that Mississippi taxpayers would spend $579 million between 2014 and 2020, but draw more than $1.4 billion in tax revenues as a result, and generate upward of $14 billion in total new economic activity.

The deal would also create 20,000 new jobs and provide an $848 million increase in net state and local tax revenues.

Those benefits would eventually trickle down to cities and counties. Jackson would get the biggest boost, representing more than $1 billion in total economic activity over the seven-year period between 2014 and 2020.

In the Jackson metropolitan area, including parts of Madison and Rankin counties, that benefit would be closer to $2 billion.

Medicaid expansion would also mean 2,712 new jobs for the capital-city area, Becker and Morrissey wrote.

The Mississippi Economic Policy Center, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that conducts research on public-policy issues that affect low- and moderate-income families will also continue making a case Medicaid expansion.

Also high on MEPC's agenda this year is addressing Mississippi's college financial aid parameters, said MEPC workforce Analyst Dee Polk, who is helming the effort endeavor.

"Need-based financial aid is in need of updating," Polk told the JFP.

Currently, only 15 percent of Mississippi's grant funds are need-based compared the national average of 71 percent, states the MEPC report, "Investing in Our Future: How to Strengthen and Update Mississippi's Financial Aid Programs for Today's College Students."

Despite the low rate of need-based grants, Mississippi also has a high student-loan default rate.

Tuition has risen faster than household income, and students with fewer resources may wind up being pushed out of higher education simply because they don't have the funds to stay in college.

"In Mississippi, we have a lot of students unable to finish college," Polk said. MEPC will also focus on pushing for more transparency regarding revenue bills by having fiscal notes attached to the legislation.

"Both lawmakers and the public should know how much something costs before it gets passed into law," says Ed Sivak, executive director of MEPC.

Brown, the lawmaker, calls opposition to Medicaid in the face of such abundant hard data "irrational."

"I don't know how anybody explains that," he said. "I'm hoping they come to their senses," he added.

Fighting for Justice

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Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, calls Medicaid expansion a smart move and looks forward to a legislative debate on the subject this year.

Amid the high-rolling corporate lobbyists, some Mississippi-based organizations will try to help craft legislation to promote social and economic equality.

One group that actively monitors legislative proceedings is the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm founded in 2003 with two employees. Today, the center now has 30 employees and offices in Jackson, Biloxi and Indianola.

Beth Orlansky, MCJ's advocacy director, sums up the group's mission, which is at the center of its lobbying, as striving for racial and economic justice. The center focuses particularly on housing, education, consumer protections, disaster relief and health care.

The staff has been busy. As a law firm, the center provides an array of services. Providing foreclosure relief, following up with HUD in cases of housing discrimination, and handling BP oil spill claims are only a few of the services the center provides to Mississippi's most underserved and vulnerable.

The center uses pro bono attorneys and law students who assist in the information gathering process, all of whom attend legislative hearings and floor debates at the Capitol.

Those efforts have included partnering with University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Mississippi State Department of Health to advocate for people with HIV and educate homeless shelters turning people away due to their HIV status.

Their first step is to educate a fearful public and alleviate fear; but the center's attorneys will step in if needed to protect people with HIV from discrimination.

MCJ also supports Medicaid expansion and worked to pass legislation to restrict high-interest payday lenders. The center is currently working with employers, banks, and credit unions to try to establish small dollar loans with lower interest rates and to provide financial-management education to low-income workers.

Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl and chairwoman of the Governor's Domestic Violence Task Force, hopes to build on last year's successful campaign to beef up the state's human-trafficking law.

This session, Middleton plans to support a bill to change how domestic-abuse shelters receive funding from the state.

A report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review confirmed that the state agency in charge of distributing the grants had not given out $1.6 million that should have gone to shelters.

Middleton argues that distribution authority should go to an independent commission, and said Gov. Bryant, a former Hinds County sheriff's deputy, supports the change because he has seen the effects of domestic abuse on families.

"Anyone who understands crime, especially interpersonal crime, understands the importance of doing this," Middleton said of Bryant.

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