Masked legislators tapped fists as the 2021 legislative session began on Jan. 5, a familiar scene awaiting an uncertain future. The state's latest legislative gathering during a pandemic quickly gave way to the first of 2020's many lingering threads: the codifying of the state's new flag.
Only moments after the gaveling-in, House Bill 1 sped through a Rules Committee hearing, on track to put declarative punctuation to one of 2020's vanishingly few moments of unity. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, opened the proceedings by putting the flag bill before a House floor that voted it through 119-1. "Today would be a most appropriate day for us to put that into the code," he said.
With the flag settled in one chamber, after only Republican Stephen Horne of Meridian opposed it (and Dan Eubanks, of Walls voted "present,") enormous work remains. The 2020 session, though it dragged on for nearly the entire year, left much unfinished. Public employee pay increases, criminal-justice reform and COVID relief all loom in the near future.
In spite of the monumental work ahead of the Legislature, there is good reason to question the wisdom of holding the session now at all. With a two-thirds vote, the House could begin the process of delaying the session until March.
As of press time, that delay seems unlikely, with Speaker Gunn dedicated to getting through the session to avoid the endless procession of 2020 repeating.
'We Couldn't Have Quorum'
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann spearheaded the effort to delay the session, citing the danger posed by another legislative outbreak and the high transmission of the virus in Mississippi.
"I propose that we come in on January 5, adopt our flag, do whatever other things we have to do, perfunctorily, and then adjourn until March 1st," the Senate leader said at a Dec. 29 press event.
Hosemann told the Jackson Free Press that part of the difficulty of holding the session during the pandemic was the strict necessity of quarantining after exposure.
"If, in fact, you have been with someone (infected with COVID-19), under Dr. Dobbs' orders, you are supposed to be quarantined for 14 days. Now, if that were enough of the Senate, we couldn't have quorum. We wouldn't have enough people to vote," Hosemann said.
Not all legislators share Hosemann's desire to see the session delayed. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said that the session should continue as planned, with improved safety measures to avoid an outbreak.
"As I saw one of my colleagues comment, teachers and other public employees have been working through this pandemic, and us legislators should do that, too," Wiggins told the Jackson Free Press.
Hosemann, who was infected during the 2020 legislative outbreak, said contact tracing revealed that last-minute budget talks held in private offices caused much of the transmission between legislators, which infected at least 49 of them. "(We) let our guard down, actually. We weren't as good about it as we needed to be," he said.
But while legislators are likely to be more wary of the virus after so many were infected in the last session, it is unlikely that a repetition of the same security measures from previous months—voluntary mask usage, temperature checks at the door and loads of hand sanitizer—is a guaranteed protection against a large-scale outbreak. In 2021, just as in 2020, it is the uncaring virus that will determine if the session continues uninterrupted, not legislators.
Parole Reform, Take Two
Distinct from COVID-19 struggles was the last-minute collapse of the Legislature's criminal-reform push, which failed to overcome a gubernatorial veto in early July 2020, despite broad support in both chambers. Now, however, a breakthrough in negotiations between reform-minded legislators and law-enforcement organizations signals a promising opportunity for a successful attempt in 2021.
At the bill's center was a long-awaited package of parole reforms intended to standardize a pathway to parole eligibility lacking for many incarcerated Mississippians.
Senate Bill 2123 would have provided parole eligibility for incarcerated Mississippians serving time for nonviolent offenses after 25% of their sentence or 10 years, whichever was less. For Mississippians serving time for violent offenses, eligibility would have required the lesser of 50% of their sentence or 25 years of incarceration.
Legislators supporting the bill, spanning both parties in both chambers, argued that it addressed a growing prison population derived from excessively harsh sentencing guidelines established in the 1990s.
Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, lamented the bill's failure in July. "Mississippi has the second-largest incarceration rate in the world. SB 2123 addressed Mississippi's growing prison crisis," Simmons said. "It was bipartisan policy."
But for Gov. Tate Reeves, the bill went too far. "Right now, you're eligible to get out of prison at 60 unless you're a trafficker, habitual offender or violent criminal. This totally eliminates those protections," he wrote on Facebook upon vetoing the bill.
The governor's concerns didn't match the content of the bill, which did nothing to guarantee parole, merely provided the incarcerated with the opportunity for a hearing before the parole board.
But Reeves later admitted to the Jackson Free Press that his concerns about who might sit on that parole board after his term in office ended fueled his skepticism about signing the bill into law.
"I have a maximum of seven years and five months left serving as governor. And I have no idea who is going to be the next governor," he said at a press event.
Reeves' veto held in no small part thanks to the backing of two powerful professional organizations, the Mississippi Sheriffs' Association and the state Prosecutors Association, both of which publicly voiced opposition to SB 2123.
Jasper County Sheriff Randy Johnson, president of the MSA, told the Jackson Free Press in September that his primary concern was a lack of preparation the influx of parolees would receive prior to their reentry to society.
"We're not against people having a second chance. We're not against people getting out. We want them to have a good step forward when they do get out, instead of just opening the door," Johnson said.
'A Good Resolution'
Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, the chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, made passing parole reform the centerpiece of his first term leading the committee. He told the Jackson Free Press in a Dec. 23 interview that enormous progress had been made in negotiations, and that he expected even broader support for the amended bill in the coming session, removing the last barrier for lasting change to the state's parole system.
"We've come to a good resolution on how we should proceed," Barnett said.
The first step in the process was simply communication. Barnett said clearly expressing the limitations the bill kept in place was an important part of the negotiations. Convicted murderers, sex offenders and anyone explicitly sentenced without possibility of parole cannot benefit from the reforms. Nor does parole eligibility guarantee release.
But there are material changes to the second attempt at the bill that ameliorate some of the concerns from law enforcement. Proposed reforms to geriatric parole are now limited to those convicted at a younger age, ensuring that elderly offenders cannot serve exceedingly short sentences.
Most importantly, Johnson's concern—the release of incarcerated Mississippians without re-entry preparation—will be addressed in the 2021 version of the bill.
Incarcerated individuals seeking expanded access to parole will have to complete "two years of job training, before their release," Barnett said. "We want to make sure they have every opportunity ... (but) if you expect to be paroled, then you have to take advantage of the job-training programs," he added.
Barnett said the Mississippi Department of Corrections would be partnering with other state agencies to expand re-entry program availability, as well as regional jails that already offer job-training programs.
The corrections chairman believes the system will play to the strengths of new MDOC commissioner Burl Cain. "The current commissioner had big success in Angola (La.) doing the same thing. That's something that he has spoken about. We're going to allow him the opportunity to (expand) that type of training," Barnett said.
Sen. Wiggins, a member of the Corrections Committee and another key legislator in the ongoing parole-reform effort, shared Barnett's positive impression of the talks with law enforcement advocates. But he was hesitant to say that the bill would see smooth sailing in the upcoming session.
"My experience tells me that when you get into the session, people's opinions can change. That being said, I would agree that significant progress has been made with those groups," he told the Jackson Free Press at the end of the year.
The state senator warned that one of the key provisions of the agreement—adherence to re-entry programs—would require investment from the Mississippi Department of Corrections that Wiggins said he had yet to see in previous years.
"The Legislature has passed many (bills) to address re-entry ... That was the one of the purposes behind House Bill 585 (from 2014): so people could get the rehabilitation that they need. The problem is that MDOC did not do it," Wiggins said.
Mississippi Code §47-7-3.1 requires MDOC to provide a complete case plan for all inmates within 90 days of their admission which includes a clearly defined parole eligibility date, and mandates a meeting with caseworkers every eight weeks to discuss the inmate's progress on that case plan. "What we have found is that MDOC has never done that," Wiggins said.
Lt. Gov. Hosemann has his eye on criminal-justice reform as well, echoing Sen. Barnett's sentiments on the meetings between legislative leadership and law enforcement at his Dec. 29 press event. Past the horizon of parole reform, Hosemann sees another step toward repairing the state's ailing carceral system.
"In my meetings with Mr. Cain, it is obvious to me that we are undercompensating our corrections officers," Hosemann told the Jackson Free Press in an interview. "That unfortunately has been habitual in several different (areas) of Mississippi. I think it's time for Mississippians to look at what we're going to do for compensation for people ... doing work for the state, so that they at least have a meaningful job that's not below the poverty rate."
Hosemann's last push for a raise for some of the state's lowest-paid employees dates back to the early days of the 2020 session, before COVID-19 obliterated all hopes of a normal year, meant to be a follow-up to what seemed at the time like a universally approved teacher pay raise.
"We have over 1,000 employees working full time for the State of Mississippi whose gross salary is less than $20,000," Hosemann said in early February. "That is not economically feasible ... We have thousands of open positions in state government. Why is that? We can't compete with a growing and burgeoning economy in Mississippi. They can get a better job."
Hosemann's continued interest in raising pay for state employees stands in contrast with the plans of Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn, both of whom have endorsed plans to aggressively cut—and eventually eliminate—the state's income tax, beyond the 3% bracket set to phase out this year.
The lieutenant governor roundly rejected that plan, first in an interview with the Jackson Free Press and again at his Dec. 29 press event, explaining that he had been presented with no solutions to fill in the $1.8 billion-plus hole in the state support budget such a tax cut would leave behind.
Whether Hosemann's plans to reinvest in the state's teachers and other public employees will come to fruition, or whether they'll be buried under the weight of coronavirus-induced austerity yet again, remains to be seen.
'Democracy Will Win'
The rolling catastrophes of 2020 exposed weaknesses across far more than the state's health-care system.
November's presidential election was a precarious one for Mississippi, in which voters requested nearly a quarter of a million absentee ballots, well over twice the amount from 2016. Images from the weeks preceding the election showed absentee voters lining the sidewalks, with extensive waiting times for many.
Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, aims to address those weaknesses in her second year in office.
"With the historic election we had in 2020 ... I'm hoping with this session we'll have the opportunity to speak with election officials, from the state to the local level, to see what worked, what didn't, and what they have in mind to improve the process," she told the Jackson Free Press in an interview just before the session began.
Summers has one goal already in mind. "I am definitely going to be pushing for no-excuse absentee voting," she said. "I'm hoping that my colleagues will have an appetite for it on the elections committee." To Summers, absentee voting is the ideal solution to expand ballot access, especially to working class voters who might find it difficult to making it to a polling place.
"I heard so much frustration from voters and election officials alike about how the process works. (Voters) weren't sure if they qualified, and if they did, which excuse to use," she said.
Plus, the freshman representative sees expanded absentee voting as a more likely avenue of greater ballot access, given a growing Republican hostility to early voting nationwide.
"When you go into the courthouse to vote absentee, you have to provide voter ID. With mail-in voting, you have to get that notarized (twice). No-excuse absentee voting is a win-win," Summers explained.
Nor is she willing to hedge on a commitment to getting the vote out because of repetitious, baseless claims of voter fraud.
"When you have the president shouting out disinformation on a daily basis because the outcome of the election didn't favor him, that's not democracy," Summers said. "But I believe that democracy will win. There are things we can do to make this process better for both sides."
Email state reporter Nick Judin at [email protected].