Politics & Government

Election year keeping legislators away from controversial issues

Education underfunding, state’s health care system hurt Mississippi

Jeremy Eisler, attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice, in 2016 explains how the state legislation's failure to adequately fund education continues to hurt the state's ability to attract more jobs.
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Jeremy Eisler, attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice, in 2016 explains how the state legislation's failure to adequately fund education continues to hurt the state's ability to attract more jobs.

Legislators, at least those in Mississippi, normally take up controversial legislation in the second and third years of their four-year terms.

In the fourth year, or the session before an election, legislators normally eschew the controversial bills for the popular items.

The Mississippi Legislature is currently in the midst of that election year session. And it is telling what is not being seriously discussed during the 2019 session.

For instance, for the past two sessions one of the primary focuses for Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, was the overhaul or rewrite of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is the mechanism used to provide the state’s share of the funds to operate local school districts.

The leaders argued that full funding of the Adequate Education Program was too expensive and outdated.

After efforts to rewrite the funding formula were blocked during the past two sessions, there has been nary a mention of such an endeavor during the 2019, election year.

On the other hand, there has been talk of vouchers and expanding school choice this session. But it is important to note there has been talk, but little action thus far.

Both Gunn and Reeves spoke at a school choice rally earlier this session. Both voiced support for school choice.

“The government doesn’t know what’s best for each child,” Gunn said at the rally as reported by Mississippi Today. “We think parents ought to have a variety of choices to do what’s best for their child.”

And indeed Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, authored legislation this session that would provide most students the opportunity to take advantage of vouchers to help pay for their private schooling.

But in the end, Tollison’s bill at his own doing was pared down to just extend the life of a current programs that provides vouchers for less than 500 special needs students to pursue private education options. That program has thus far not cost the state more than $2.1 million in any one year – a minuscule amount of money when considering that the state spends about $2.5 billion annually on public education.

And on the Senate floor when passing the bill to extend the life of the special needs program, Tollison, trying to relieve many of his colleagues’ concerns about vouchers, made a vow that he would not try to add language to the bill later in the process to expand the state’s voucher or school choice program.

“I have no intention to do that,” he said from the well of the Senate.

Education is not the only area where legislators are avoiding programs that were priorities in past sessions.

In recent years, the leadership – Gunn and Reeves – have been in favor of removing civil service protection for state employees.

There have been unsuccessful efforts to strip civil service protection from most agencies for a period of time. Those efforts have failed and no one is talking about that this election year.

This year, the Department of Public Safety and Department of Correction both asked to have civil service protection removed. Legislation did not even get out of committee to remove the protection for Public Safety and this past week the House left early on a key deadline day without taking up a bill to exempt the corrections department.

That bill died. Granted, there is a bill alive to extend the exemption from civil service protection granted in an earlier session for Child Protection Services and Human Services.

Whether there is an effort to amend that bill to include corrections or public safety remains to be seen.

But it is clear that removing civil service protection from state employees is less popular in an election year than it is in other years.

What is popular this year? That answer appears to be providing teacher and state employees pay raises and putting in place significant restrictions on abortions..

And oh yeah, legalizing the growing of hemp, as the House has voted to do, also seems to be popular.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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