What would have been a calm first week of the legislative session turned into an explosive debate on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 13.
The blow-up was over Republicans' introduction of an alternative initiative, HCR 9, in a secretive committee meeting the day before as a response to Initiative 42, which already has enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.
The original initiative is in support of full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is required by law but which lawmakers often neglect.
The Legislature does not need to approve citizen-driven ballot initiatives, but state law allows them to approve "alternative" initiatives to also appear on the ballot. In a 64-57 vote, HCR 9, which would require the Legislature to provide "for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools"—replacing the word "adequate" with "effective"—passed.
On the floor, many Democratic legislators claimed that the measure is simply a way to confuse voters and kill the original amendment, which would require the Legislature to provide for an "adequate" system of free public education—a law not popular with Republicans.
"When you vote for this today, you're voting for confusion," said Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville.
Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, who introduced the resolution, said the alternative amendment gives another option to voters. "I was not concerned with how the ballot would look," Snowden said. "I am not concerned about this confusing anyone."
The Twitter account @42Truth does seem to be trying to seed confusion about Initiative 42, however. It sprang up the second day of the session, creating a tizzy among educational leaders with its anti-MAEP tweets. A Twitter search of #42truth, though, yields remarks mostly from public-school advocates refuting facts posted on the account.
Then There's Common Core
On opening day of the 2015 Mississippi legislative session, a pre-teen boy walked up the south steps of the Capitol to greet Gov. Phil Bryant. After saying hello, he stood gallantly and faced the crowd below holding a sign reading, "I am not common."
Bryant and Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers spoke to the crowd at the "Stop Common Core" rally—where Mississippians from all corners of the state hooped and hollered, carrying signs like, "Common Core Fails."
"I don't take a political position on this. I take a personal position on this," Gov. Phil Bryant said at the rally.
Members of the anti-Common Core movement believe the standards are federal overreach. "We're not here today to say take away those academic challenges. We're here to say make them better but take them away from the control of the federal government," Bryant said.
While none of the politicians who spoke at the rally—including Bryant; Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune; Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula; and Sen. Phillip Gandy, R-Waynesboro—spoke in detail about how the new standards would be crafted, Bryant assured they could be done without spending much money.
"Angela Hill could do a pretty good job at that, and it wouldn't cost us 8.6 million dollars," Bryant said of creating educational standards in the state.
Hill, a former science teacher, told the group that the state could adopt standards from other states, which would be free.
"It is not brain surgery. I can't do brain surgery, but I can write standards," she said.
While it is certain that lawmakers will file one or several bills to defund and repeal Common Core, none has yet been introduced.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, told the Jackson Free Press earlier this month that he intends to introduce a bill to stop Common Core standards.
On Wednesday, a group of lawmakers discussed "performance-based budgeting," the Legislature's new method of creating the state budget.
Last year, the state received $1 billion more in requests than the state was able to fund. "There's really no built-in, ongoing feedback to really evaluate if what we're spending is really working. Is it accomplishing anything?" said Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg.
The performance-based model requires the state to take inventory of each state agency, screening each program to see if it is evidence-based—if data prove that the formula for funding and its implementation leads to desired results—or if it is "something someone just thought up out in the parking lot one day and decided to make a policy," Barker said.
Health and Wellness Debates
House Bills regarding vaccination rights have often gone to the Public Health and Human Service committee, chaired by Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, and they have historically died there. But on Thursday, one authored by Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, was sent to the House Education Committee.
The bill would allow parents to receive an exemption to vaccinating their children for philosophical reasons, which means the child would be allowed to attend school without being up-to-date on immunizations.
Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, filed what is likely the first of many bills to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which the state has adamantly refused to do, leaving 300,000 Mississippians medically uninsured.
Open or Closed Primaries?
While Sen. McDaniel told the JFP that he will introduce a bill to close party primaries, saying, "We must reform the primary process, ending forever the unconstitutional and improper practice of party-raiding," two legislators have proposed opening primaries further.
Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, and Rep. William Shirley, R-Quitman, both authored bills designed to abolish partisan primaries, which would mean that election primaries would no longer be separated by party.
It is unclear how much these efforts would do to avoid a situation similar to that of the June 2014 U.S. Senate Republican primary, in which McDaniel claims U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran solicited Democratic voters to cross party lines to vote for him.
Catheads and Smoked Ham
Shirley also introduced a bill to make "I Am Mississippi" the official state poem—which became a point of controversy in 2006 when it was previously proposed.
NPR reported at the time that a group of professors and students from the University of Mississippi led efforts to stop the Legislature from passing the bill, saying that the poem is filled with cliches.
The poem, written by musician Paul Ott, includes lines such as: "I'm coffee in the morning and an ole smoked ham."
The line that follows, "Cathead biscuits and blackberry jam" apparently disturbed some people when "I Am Mississippi" was proposed again as the official state poem last year. Media then reported that some thought the line suggested that cats were literally being used as an ingredient in the biscuits.
Ott clarified that they are called Cathead biscuits because of their size—the size of a cat's head. But what's more intriguing is a line near the end of the Mississippi-centric poem, "I'm gone with the wind, y'all come back again"—considering that the film "Gone with the Wind" is a romantic film about white plantation owners and their slaves (set in Georgia) and "Y'all come back again" sounds a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies, which was a show about a hillbilly family from Arkansas.