1.1.24 – SuperTalk Mississippi
Another legislative session is officially upon us as lawmakers prepare to gavel in on Tuesday. With it being the start of a new term and a hodgepodge of hot-ticket topics still needing to be discussed, here’s what to know about this year’s session.
When is the session?
The 2024 session will officially begin on Tuesday, Jan. 2 at noon. Due to it being the start of a new term, the legislature will convene for 125 days rather than the usual 90 days, meaning lawmakers should wrap business up by or during the first week of May.
Who will be the new House speaker?
While Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann will be back leading the Senate, the House will need to take care of business in electing a new speaker. With longtime House Speaker Philip Gunn choosing not to seek reelection, Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White has emerged as the frontrunner for the open seat. The Republican from West, who already has the full support of others within the party, should be a shoo-in as GOP members maintained a supermajority in the House following this year’s elections.
“I am humbled to be unanimously selected as the Republican nominee for the Mississippi Speaker of the House by the Republican Caucus,” White said in a statement after the caucus unanimously decided to back him during a November meeting. “Mississippi has made tremendous strides over the previous 12 years of conservative Republican leadership and has greatly prospered under Speaker Philip Gunn. I appreciate the trust my fellow Republicans have now placed in me as the nominee for speaker.”
Even though Democrats will submit a nominee heading into the vote, the chances of White losing are slim to none. Rep. Manly Barton, a Republican from Moss Point, is expected to take over as speaker pro tempore.
What will lawmakers be discussing?
This is the big question. As always, thousands of bills will be filed with hundreds making it to the floor for a vote. While we can’t predict every topic that’s bound to come up for discussion, we do know a few.
Medicaid expansion is going to be a topic that comes up and it might even be considered more so by lawmakers this year than in years past. However, the recent passing of a bulk of Gov. Tate Reeves’ reimbursement plan that could create up to $700 million for hospitals should take some heat off expansion.
“[The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] accepting that proposal was huge,” Sen. Jeremy England, a Republican from Vancleave, said. “That’s going to allow hospitals to get money that they didn’t otherwise have, and we don’t have to expand Medicaid to do that and that’s very important.”
While full-on Medicaid expansion might not be a top-ticket item for Republicans, other hospital-related bills are expected to be considered such as changing the state’s Certificate of Need laws and finding more funding for struggling hospitals.
Ballot initiative process
With Mississippi being the only state to ever have a ballot initiative process before taking it away, lawmakers are once again expected to try to restore citizens’ ability to propose laws and constitutional amendments.
After stripping the ballot initiative process in 2021, the House and Senate have failed to agree on the number of signatures needed for the people to propose a law or amendment. The House has consistently seen 106,000 as a suitable number while the Senate found 240,000 to be the most appropriate figure during last year’s session.
Sen. Daniel Sparks, a Republican from Belmont, believes if the two chambers can meet on a number, they need to monitor what people can propose. For example, he does not believe that people should be able to create initiative campaigns regarding Medicaid expansion, recreational marijuana, abortion, or anything that impacts the state budget.
“If you really sat down and listened, it has to do with marijuana, it has to do with abortion, it has to do with things that otherwise would not pass through the legislature,” Sparks said. “I think we need to think long and hard about what we’re doing and what that means if somebody is going to pass something that causes the state of Mississippi to impact its budget.”
House Minority Leader Robert Johnson, a Democrat from Natchez, disagrees with censoring the people but would be willing to raise the number of signatures if it meant restoring the ballot initiative process.
“I don’t have a problem requiring more signatures… If it’s going to make it a more thorough process and more trustworthy process, that’s fine,” Johnson said. “What I don’t want to see is us limit what people can put on [the ballot]. I think voters in this state and the citizens of this state are smart enough to know what they want.”
Personal income tax
Even though Mississippi is in the middle of its largest tax phase-out in state history, Reeves continues to push for the full elimination of personal income tax.
“I pushed to eliminate the state income tax, and we’ve achieved the largest tax cut in state history,” Reeves said this summer. “And we can do more because this is Mississippi’s time.”
Lawmakers, on the other hand, might not be too sure about immediately eliminating the income tax as it is already expected to be phased out within the next 12 to 14 years. Some Republican legislators, such as Hosemann, have voiced support for lessening the nation’s highest grocery tax instead.
One of the more controversial topics expected to come up, school choice is a conversation that has heated up in recent months.
The idea of implementing a program that allows families to use public money to access private schools beyond their local public school option, especially if they’re in a struggling district, is backed by some Republicans and opposed by most to all Democrats.
“I just want the taxpayer resources to stay with public education,” Johnson said. “I would not be in support of [school choice].”
Rather, Johnson would support an easier route for parents in low-rated districts to enroll their child in a neighboring district that has a better public school system.
“I think there’s room for that,” he continued. “If we put heads together and come up with a plan that would not cause districts to be unnecessarily adversely affected, I have looked at some ideas on that and I think that’s workable.”
Other topics in education that are bound to come up are the state’s public school funding formula and the possible implementation of free community college for post-secondary students.
One elephant in the room this legislative session will be addressing the financial stability of Mississippi’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
Even though people are always wary of any conversations that have to do with PERS and potential changes, England said now is the time to resolve the system’s financial woes as all three primary financial metrics used to measure the program’s health are in red signal-light status.
“What we’ve got with PERS is a can that’s been kicked so far down the road, we can’t kick it any further,” England said. “I think we’re going to have to, at some point, just put a wedge or a stop on the timeline of PERS to allow the benefits we have now up to a certain point and then, we’re going to have to do something completely different moving forward.”
Of the options the legislature may consider regarding PERS, included is increasing the employer contribution rate, creating a new retirement tier, transferring funds from the state’s reserves, increasing the target rate of return on assets, increasing the employee contribution rate, adjusting benefits, or a combination of any of these.
“It’s going to be a tough problem, and there are going to be a lot of talks on them,” England continued. “I’m ready to have them. We’ve got to get in and jump into this headfirst now.