Lawmakers sent Gov. Phil Bryant (pictured) a measure that will expand re-entry reforms in the state’s criminal-justice system. Bryant has until March 26 to sign the measure; he vetoed a similar bill last year. Trip Burns/File Photo
JACKSON It's crunch time at the Mississippi Capitol. This week lawmakers will have to finalize the state budget, predominantly behind closed doors, before passing a slim fiscal-year 2019 budget. So far, legislators plan to spend about $70 million less than they did last year, House of Representative budget documents show.
Representatives, so far, appear willing to increase funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program this session, despite Republicans' failed attempts to re-write the education funding formula. The Senate budget proposal does not increase funding for education, however.
The House budget also calls for enough funding to keep the Mississippi Department of Mental Health at the same budget levels as last year. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently litigating a case against the state for its over-reliance on institutionalization in mental-health care.
Lawmakers will be forced to make tough decisions this week, however, as the lawsuit against the state's foster-care system, called "Olivia Y," requires more than $35 million than what is currently allocated for the agency, as the new commissioner told reporters last week. Without those funds, the still relatively new division of Child Protection Services could risk going into federal receivership.
Bills to Watch This Week
Medicaid Amendments (SB 2836)
This measure authorizes the Division of Medicaid, and six lawmakers will work to come to a compromise between the House and Senate positions. Both chambers support allowing Medicaid to cover opioid and other drug-addiction support services. Lawmakers will likely make decisions about the number of hospital admissions and increasing the number of prescriptions for Medicaid recipients in their conference report for this bill.
Transportation Funding (SB 3046; HB 354)
Last year, lawmakers were forced into a special session after the two chambers could not agree on transportation funding. The House has thrown out myriad proposals, and this year Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves decided to introduce his own proposal, called the "BRIDGE Act."
That bill, which includes some bonds for infrastructure needs as well as creates two new state funds to target road and bridge funding, could mean $1 billion for infrastructure in the next five years—if revenue meets certain triggers, specifically more than a 1-percent increase in sales tax growth. The measure includes $240 million in immediate funds for infrastructure. House Bill 354 would also divert any surplus funds above 2-percent growth to infrastructure needs in the state.
Both transportation funding measures are in conference, and senators and representatives will have to agree on how much money to set aside for roads and bridges.
Guns in Schools (House Bill 1083)
What started as a means to ensure that Mississippians with enhanced-carry licenses can carry firearms on campuses, including in athletic events, has turned into a measure to allow schools to establish "safety programs" as well as slightly tightening state gun laws. The author of the measure, Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, indicated on social media that he is not open to some of the Senate's changes.
"Bottom line: a new restriction of existing concealed carry rights is something I just cannot support. I doubt that surprises anybody," he wrote on Facebook. This measure is likely to go to conference, if the House chooses to keep it alive. The deadline for the House to concur with the changes the Senate made is Thursday.
Re-Entry Bill on Governor's Desk
Gov. Phil Bryant has until Monday, March 26, to sign House Bill 387. This year clergy and conservative groups, including Right on Crime, supported the bill, which will keep Mississippians out of jail if they cannot afford to pay fines or fees.
The measure will allow lawmakers and groups of public officials to continue studying disparities in the state's criminal-justice system, including how judges issue sentences for various crimes. The bill also gives judges the option to deviate from the "habitual offender" law, offering an explanation if they do not want to give the maximum sentence state law requires for a Mississippian's "third strike."
Comment at jfp.ms and follow state reporter Arielle Dreher at @arielle_amara on Twitter for #msleg coverage.