At the end of March, the Mississippi Legislature wrapped up its 2017 Regular
Session. Over the past three months, representatives and senators from across the state met in Jackson to draft and approve policies that will impact
our state for years to come.
As your representative, I want to give you an update on the major legislation that was adopted this session and how it affects you. I was happy to work
with my colleagues to help pass several of these key reforms. Here’s a short summary of several bills that were passed into law. All of the bills considered
by the Legislature, as well as my votes on each of them, can be reviewed on my website.
Campaign Finance Reform
After failing to reach an agreement on campaign finance reform last year, the legislature began working on this issue early in the session. The House and
Senate had some differences on the best way to accomplish this, but there was widespread agreement that regulations and enforcement should be strengthened.
The final version sent to the Governor establishes meaningful restrictions on how political candidates may use campaign contributions, and promotes greater
transparency in our political process. Specifically, SB 2689 will prohibit candidates from using campaign contributions for personal expenses and broadens the authority of the Mississippi Ethics Commission to
enforce the new rules.
Rivers McGraw Act
This bill was passed to honor the life of Rivers McGraw, a college student who tragically took his own life last year after an interaction with the criminal justice system. HB 1089 honors Rivers’ life and legacy by establishing a mental health court diversion system.
Currently, many individuals with mental health issues and addiction issues are arrested and incarcerated without ever addressing the underlying issues
that lead them to criminal behavior. Mental Health Courts will ensure that they have access to treatment and diversion programs. The bill also ensures
that individuals under 21 who are arrested are notified of their right to contact a parent.
This is a positive reform that will decrease our reliance on the criminal justice system to address a health issue. This has the potential to save taxpayers
money and provide better outcomes for thousands of Mississippians.
This session was supposed to be the session that the state’s funding formula for elementary and secondary education – the Mississippi Adequate Education
Program (MAEP) – was to be overhauled. The legislative leadership employed a consultant to review MAEP and make recommendations for changes. All of
that was done early in the session, but for a number of reasons, the leadership decided against addressing MAEP this session.
No changes were made to MAEP and as I write this, and there is no indication when consideration of the consultant’s report will take place. This is, of
course, a major issue for Madison County and one that I will follow and report to you when there is some movement. In the meantime, here are a few
other education bills approved by the Legislature:
- Anti-Bullying Law: The legislature passed HB 263,
which clarifies the definition of bullying and requires district schools to adopt policies that address bullying. It also ensures that these policies
are fairly applied to punish the perpetrators of bullying and not the victims.
- Dyslexia Scholarship: The legislature expanded this scholarship that allows students with dyslexia to use the dollars allocated for them to provide
dyslexia therapy services. Parents and students should be able to choose the education that best suits their needs, and this provides a measure
of choice to these students. The scholarship will now apply to students through 12th grade.
- Failing Districts: SB 2431 helps improve failing school districts by allowing the state Board of Education to place them in District Transformation Status and appoint an
Interim Superintendent to oversee changes that improve outcomes in the district schools.
- Consolidations: The legislature passed two measures which seek to reduce administrative overhead in counties with multiple school districts by administratively
consolidating district offices. SB 2461and
SB 2463 move forward consolidations in Perry and Chickasaw counties, respectively.
- Golf Carts: HB 1754 allows the City of Madison to authorize the use of golf carts on city streets, at the discretion of the city government.
- Leisure and Recreation Districts: SB 2612 expands “leisure and recreation districts,” which allow these areas to have “go cups” for special events. The bill includes Lost Rabbit and creates
a recreation district there.
- Recognizing Excellence in Education: The legislature adopted HR 21 recognizing Madison Station Elementary School educator Allison Ruhl for receiving the prestigious Milken Educator Award.
The legislature passed HB 1090,
which aims to reduce welfare fraud by identifying individuals who are illegally receiving government benefits. The bill deals primarily with Medicaid,
and establishes a system that will dig deeper into eligibility requirements and identify individuals who are fraudulently receiving benefits through
the entitlement program. This reform has the potential to save taxpayer dollars and ensure that dollars are only directed to those who are actually
eligible to receive them.
The State Budget
Over the last five years, the State of Mississippi has dramatically increased government spending, using increased tax collections. During this time frame,
state spending accelerated rapidly, outpacing growth in inflation as well as growth in population. Now that tax collections are down, this sort of
spending is unsustainable.
Instead of asking taxpayers to send even more of their hard-earned money to the state treasury, the legislature chose to live within its means and reduce
the rate of spending to agree with projected revenues. This has caused a considerable amount of debate, but I believe that the nearly $6 billion the
state collects in tax revenue is more than enough to fund the core functions of government. You can view the total appropriations that the legislature
approved for each agency here.
Criminal Justice Reform
From my perspective, legislation that is described as a “criminal justice reform” should only be approved if it reduces costs to the system while making
us all safer and, at the same time, gives people arrested and convicted of non-violent offenses opportunities to regain employment and re-enter the
work force. Here are four bills passed this year that meet those criteria:
- Civil Asset Forfeiture: HB 812 was a product of the Civil Asset Forfeiture task force, on which I was proud to serve. It represents a positive step toward establishing due process
protections in forfeiture proceedings, when a law enforcement agency seeks to confiscate the private property of people they believe may have violated
- Youth Court: The legislature passed HB 652,
which helps strengthen families by establishing due process protections for parents and children in youth court proceedings by working to keep
children with their parents.
- Employment: HB 1033 adopts recommendations of the state’s Reentry Council, which was established to develop ways to help those who have been released by the criminal
justice system reenter the workforce. The goal of these provisions is to remove barriers to employment that have been in our criminal code for
way too long.
- Sexual Assault Protection Order: HB 1356 provides our courts with an additional tool to help protect the victims of sexual assault.
Reducing Regulations and Bureaucracy
- Craft Beer: The legislature passed HB 1322 reducing regulations on craft brewers in Mississippi by allowing them to sell their products on-site. These kinds of regulations are harmful to
free enterprise, and removing them allows businesses to create jobs and better serve their customers.
- Licensing Reform: The legislature took a major step towards reducing burdensome occupational licensing restrictions by passing HB 1425,
which establishes a review process for regulations promulgated by licensing boards. Reducing some of these burdensome regulations will open up
employment prospects for Mississippians.
- Reducing Boards and Commissions: HB 1330 and SB 2572 clean up the state’s code by eliminating several boards and commissions that are no longer active.
Capitol Complex Improvement District
The legislature acted this year to address infrastructure improvements in the capital city of Jackson. It’s no secret that the city has its fair share
of infrastructure issues and there is a legitimate case to be made that the state should help fund some of this repair around the capitol complex since
the state pays no property taxes on those buildings.
HB 1226 diverts a portion of existing sales tax collections from Jackson to a newly created Improvement District. The director of the state Department of Finance
& Administration will oversee and approve all spending in the district, which is charged with making improvements to roads, utilities, and other
similar needs in the capitol complex. The designated area includes many state office buildings in the downtown area. You can view a map of the covered
Transparency and Accountability
When I was campaigning for this office, I asked people across District 58 what they would most like to see different about their state government. Time
and time again, their first response was “Transparency.” We all deserve to know what our state government is doing, and how we are being represented.
As State Representative for District 58, my goal is to lead by example. Since I cast my first vote in the legislature over a year ago, I have posted every
single vote online. It should be simple for you to know how I voted on each measure, as well as why I voted the way I did.
Your feedback and suggestions have been immensely helpful as I work to represent our district in the legislature. I do my best to respond to each of you
as quickly as I can. You can always reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can call or text my cell
phone at (601) 207-0813. Please reach out with any questions, concerns or requests that you might have.
The legislature will convene for a special session in the next couple of months to address several items. Due to a disagreement over appropriations for
a few agencies, we will reconsider funding bills for the Department of Transportation, the Office of State Aid Roads, and the Attorney General’s office.
It is my hope that we can establish consensus on these items prior to a special session, to minimize the cost to taxpayers. I will post updates online
as legislators decide which issues we will address.
I look forward to working with all of you, and with leaders from our area, to continue to craft legislation that improves our community. My goal is to
ensure that Madison and Ridgeland continue to be great places to live, work and raise a family. I will continue to support legislation that helps our
state move forward and creates a better quality of life for all of our citizens.
It’s an honor to serve and represent you.