State Politics

2016 Mississippi session a little of everything or nothing

JACKSON -- In most instances, state legislators cut taxes at times of budget surpluses -- not during periods of revenue shortfalls.

Lawmakers took a different approach during the just-completed 2016 session of the Mississippi Legislature.

At almost the same time the 2016 Legislature was concluding work on a budget for the new fiscal year, which includes double digit budget cuts for many state agencies, and on the largest tax cut in the state's history, Gov. Phil Bryant was announcing his second round of budget cuts for the current fiscal year.

Those .43 percent cuts (a total of $25 million) also included cuts of $9.7 million for the local school districts. It is important to note the cuts will have a greater impact because they must be absorbed in the final two months of the fiscal year.

Bryant's current year cuts and the Legislature's austere budget for the new fiscal year, starting July 1, were necessitated by sluggish revenue collections. But the sluggish revenue collections did not prevent the Legislature from enacting the largest tax cut ($415 million over 11 years) in the state's history, albeit it will not begin for two years, and did not prevent the Legislature from incurring the most debt (more than $500 million, including economic development projects) in recent years.

Such was the dichotomy of the 2016 legislative session that ended Thursday -- budget cuts coupled with tax cut, fiscal conservatism, coupled with a litany of local bond projects that Republican Treasurer Lynn Fitch referred to as a "Christmas-tree-collection of earmarked goodies."

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who in the past has been an outspoken opponent of increasing the state's debt, defended the nearly $249.6 bond debt the Legislature approved in the final days of the 2016 session, saying the state's debt will, in reality, be reduced this year because about $280 million in bond debt is being retired. Of course, in addition to the nearly $250 million in bond debt approved last week, the Legislature also passed $254 million in bonds in February for economic development projects.

Reeves also defended the tax cut, saying "Mississippi's long-term economic health relies on a tax policy that makes our businesses more competitive in the marketplace and entices more job creators to locate here."

But Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, said of the tax cut, "This comes directly from our general fund, which we already do not have enough funds in to pay for basic needs."

Overall, the Republican majority left Jackson last week happy. Democrats did not.

"It has been a long and tough session," said Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie. "We had to make some tough decisions ... I thought it was pretty successful."

But Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the result of the budget cuts will be devastating for the departments of Mental Health and the Health Department, and that the Legislature did nothing to prevent the continuing deterioration of the state's highways and bridges.

"I can't think of nary a thing to go home and crow about," said Holland.

When pressed, Holland did concede he was glad the bond bill (incurring the long-term debt) included $750,000 to help with the building at Tupelo Veterans Park of a replica of the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Wall War Memorial.

The session had a little of everything.

It started with the House voting to throw out votes from the November general election that both Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said should be counted under current state law. This allowed the House Republicans to seat Republican challenger Mark Tullos of Raleigh in the contested seat and give them the three-fifths super majority Senate Republicans had for the past four years and were able to maintain as the results of the November general election.

From that point on, the Republicans went on to pass conservative social legislation that included a bill to allow businesses and government officials not to provide services for same-sex weddings. The bill, quickly signed into law by the Republican governor, put Mississippi in the national spotlight as some accused the state of returning to its discriminatory past.

Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, said of the legislation, "I know it created a lot of conflict, but in reality we were founded because of religious liberty."

McMahan said he believes the legislation is just an extension of that quest for religious liberty.

Reeves touted not only the tax cut but education changes as the biggest successes of the session.

The session started with the governor and legislative leaders placing an emphasis on expanding school choice options. In the end, school choice expansion was limited to a modest strengthening of the state's charter school legislation. But the Legislature did, after years of unsuccessful efforts, begin the process of phasing out the state's elected superintendents, and one of the few areas not to sustain a budget cut was the funds going to local school districts.

"Every one of these education reforms is focused on one simple belief -- every child in the state deserves an opportunity for success," Reeves said.

In the midst of considering legislation, House and Senate members spent a significant amount of time bickering. In both chambers, members of the minority Democratic Party took steps to slow the process to protest what they considered unfair treatment and legislation they opposed.

Those protests were more pronounced in the more rowdy and larger House and led to unprecedented steps by Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, to quell the uprising -- even changing the rules of the House in the middle of the session.

Despite the conflict, Gunn said it was a productive session.

"We kept education level-funded when everything else was cut," Gunn said. "We passed appointed superintendents. We expanded charter schools. We did a tax cut. We kept spending within our means. We didn't spend more than we had. We passed a very important bond bill."

He said of the conflict, "My door has always been open. While we had some dustups, overall, I think we are moving forward pretty well. I don't think they care whether we get along or not. I think what the public cares about is what have you done for us?"

But Rep. David Baria, of Bay St. Louis, the House Democratic leader, said, "Instead of addressing ... critical public policy issues, our legislative leaders have chosen to attempt to distract you by emphasizing legislation that plays to our baser instincts. But, Mississippians are too smart to be fooled by the legislative sleight of hand that has been practiced in this session."

Such was the 2016 session. It was a matter of perspective.