House Bill 786 was approved by state Representatives and would accomplish three things: (1) allows church authorities to develop security programs that designate enhanced carry permit holders or those with military or law enforcement backgrounds to protect places of worship, (2) ensures that these participants receive the benefits of existing protections under the state’s Castle Doctrine law; and (3) clarifies current permitless carry options for law-abiding citizens while maintaining the existing enhanced and regular concealed carry permitting systems.
The Mississippi Senate now takes up the bill for consideration.
A week after it passed out of the Education Committee, the Tim Tebow Act died on the Senate floor. Senate Bill 2329, named for the eponymous home schooled Heisman Trophy winner, would have given home school students the opportunity to participate in public school athletic and extracurricular programs.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joey Fillingane, said that it gave no unfair advantage to home schooled children. But opponents, led by Sen. Hob Bryan, disagreed citing concerns of fairness. With no companion legislation in the House, the measure is officially dead unless the language is added to another bill as an amendment.
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The Mississippi Senate passed SB 2695, Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, on Wednesday. The measure is designed to help special needs students by providing a $7,000 voucher, provided on pre-paid debit cards, to seek educational services outside the public school system. If enacted into law, it will be limited to 500 students in the first year. The estimated $3.5 million first year cost would be paid from the state’s general fund and not the Mississippi Adequate Education Program earmarked funds. Funds could only use the funds at Mississippi Department of Education approved vendors.
Gov. Phil Bryant and the National Excellence in Education Foundation praised the passage. However, the Parents Campaign opposes SB 2695 because it does not help all students with disabilities and sees it as a step toward privatization of public schools.
SB 2695 will proceed to the House for consideration where a similar bill, HB 294 sponsored by Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian, awaits passage.
Senate Bill 2161 was passed yesterday and will establish the Mississippi Commission on College and Career Readiness to recommend new education standards to replace the Common Core States Standards adopted. Several Tea Party conservatives, namely Senators Chris McDaniel, Melanie Sojourner, and Michael Watson, protested since the Senate refused to add language making the adoption of the commission recommendations mandatory. Those objecting to SB 2161 also fear that the Commission could recommend standards that simply mirror Common Core standards.
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If passed, House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 22 would give place a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced state budget on the 2015 ballot. However, the bill authored by Rep. Mark Formby (Pearl River) failed to receive the necessary two-thirds of the House vote. A motion to reconsider has been made and the House may be vote on the measure again.
While the state has routinely balanced budgets, Republican members want to mandate the practice. But the HCR 22 must first be passed by the House and then approved by a majority of voters. The bill does provide, with a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, relief from the provisions of the amendment in times of war, natural disasters, and economic emergencies.
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With 2015 a state-wide election year, the upcoming session of the Mississippi Legislature is sure to be interesting. First, every member of the legislature and all state-wide office holders are up for re-election. Additionally, Initiative 42, the proposal to amend the state constitution to require fully funding MAEP, will be on the ballot and a possible alternative if passed by the Legislature.
With MAEP on the ballot, public education funding is certain to be a top issue for the legislature. The full MAEP formula has only been funded twice since adopted in 1997 (both times during election years) and, with Medicaid costs increasing, funding the full amount will require some combination of decreasing amounts for other services and higher education or raising taxes.
Tax relief is another political football and only the governor has proposed to give a tax credit to low to moderate income working families. The $5 state inspection sticker may also come up for consideration since it does not generate much revenue. Corporate taxes are also on the table; Mississippi is one of 13 states with a franchise tax that puts the state at a competitive disadvantage with other states in attracting new businesses.
With the scandals that have hit the Department of Corrections, Contract Reform will likely be another big topic this year. Tighter restrictions on no-bid contracts is likely to be politically popular this year.
Mark the calendar with these notable days in 2015:
- State Legislature Convenes: January 6th
- State Legislature Adjourns: April 6th
- Party Primary Election: August 4th
- Party Primary Runoff Election: August 25th
- General/Special Election: November 3rd
- Special Runoff Election: November 24th
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By gathering enough signatures, MAEP proponents have placed Initiative 42 on the 2015 General Election ballot. Per the Secretary of State press release, “Initiative #42 seeks to amend the State Constitution to require the full funding of education and grant the Chancery Court of Hinds County the power to enforce the full funding of education with appropriate injunctive relief.”
Currently, the Mississippi State Constitution entrusts education funding to the State Legislature. Section 201, states “The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.”
The 2015 ballot will simply read, “Should the state be required to provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?”
However, Initiative 42 will amend Section 201 of State Constitution to read as follows: “To protect each child’s fundamental right to educational opportunity, the State shall, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief.”
MAEP is a formula adopted by the State Legislature (MS Code § 37-151-7) in 1997 to define funding levels for public education in Mississippi. Of the $6 Billion 2014 state budget, education received about $2.4 Billion. Fully funding MAEP would require 10-15% more funding and has been fully funded twice since it’s adoption.
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In the wake of the Mississippi House’s rejection of education vouchers for 500 special needs students, Louisiana reports 91.9% of parents are happy with the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The program provides funds for parents to choose a school of their choice if they have incomes below 250% of the federal poverty limit and are enrolled in a public school with a C, D, or F grade. Of those parents, 91.6% said they are happy with academic progress.
Louisiana’s program now supports 6,490 families. Despite documented academic successes which led Louisiana’s legislature to roll-out the program statewide, the program had to survive a Justice Department lawsuit last year that alleged the program “impede[d] desegregation.” Keep in mind, all the students benefitting from the vouchers are poor and most are minorities!
Just as Louisiana had to fight unions and the federal government to get and then keep the voucher program in place, Mississippi will have to fight those that benefit from the status quo. Where does your state Senator or state Representative stand? Below is how Gulf Coast Representatives voted on vouchers for special needs students:
- Jeramey D. Anderson (110)–Nay
- David Baria (122)–Nay
- Sonya Williams-Barnes (119)–Nay
- Manly Barton (109)–Yea
- Richard Bennett (120)–Yea
- Charles Busby (111)–Yea
- Carolyn Crawford (121)–Yea
- Scott DeLano (117)–Yea
- Casey Eure (116)–Yea
- Jeffrey S. Guice, Harrison & Jackson Counties (114)–Yea
- Greg Haney (118)–Nay
- Timmy Ladner, Hancock & Harrison Counties (93)–Yea
- Doug McLeod (107)–Yea
- Randall H. Patterson (115)–Nay
- John O. Read (112)–Yea
- Patricia Willis, Hancock & Harrison Counties (95)–Yea
- H.B. “Hank” Zuber, III (113)–Yea
Even if they voted with your desires in the 2014 session, be sure to let them know what you think. Nothing keeps them from changing their vote in the future except accountability to constituents.
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“Better Schools, Better Jobs” is seeking a constitutional amendment to require the Mississippi Legislature to fully fund public education according to the MAEP formula. If 107,000 registered voters sign their petition by April 2015, the initiative will go on the ballot for voters to decide.
Adopted in 1997, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is a formula that determines total district funding. Of the $6 Billion state budget, education consumes $2.4 Billion and is receiving an $85 Million dollar increase in 2015. Fully funding MAEP would require 10-15% more funding. Per The Parents’ Campaign, that increase would have resulted in $2.54M, $7.67M, and $5.23M more for Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties, respectively.
While fully funding education sounds like a good thing, there are several important considerations:
- Local governments are responsible for up to 27% of the MAEP formula. Local officials can always vote to increase the local contribution to their city and county’s schools.
- If you send your children to private school, fully funding MAEP is equivalent to a tax increase. While an actual tax increase may not happen, under the proposed amendment more state tax dollars would be directed away from state services you use to a state service (public school) that you don’t. Education vouchers would change that calculus but the state legislature rejected such an option for just 500 special needs students during the 2014 session.
- The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission reports that the state is a net exporter of college graduates. While MAEP does not fund college and university education, state universities are primarily filled with state students. Therefore state tax dollars are ultimately subsidizing other states’ economies. Improving Mississippi’s economy and job opportunities (and thereby the state and local tax base) is a better way to improve school funding.
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Bobby Harrison of the Daily Journal runs down the significant events of the 2014 legislative session with a two-part series:
- Teacher pay, justice reform biggest achievements
- School districts still in budget hole
In his first story, Harrison provides a recap of the following issues that the legislature tackled during the session:
- Teacher Pay: Initially promoted by Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton), the bill provides $2,500 pay raise over 2 years. The senate finalized the language which, under Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ leadership cut out performance requirements.
- Criminal Justice Reform: Sweeping reforms resulting from recommendations of judges, prosecutors, district attorneys, law enforcement and local officials. Estimated to save $266 Million over 10-years.
- Special Needs Payments: Promoted by Sen. Nancy Collins (R-Tupelo), the proposal failed largely due to objections over giving “education vouchers.”
- Religious Freedom: Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed even after firestorm in Arizona. Legislation changed to prevent the government from being able to force someone to take action against their religious beliefs.
- Bonds: $199.9 Million in new bonds were approved for Cooper Tire in Tupelo, a Tammy Wynette Museum in Tremont, the William Faulkner/Union Heritage Museum in New Albany, and renovations to Okolona College.
- Texting: After looking like ban on texting while driving would pass, Rep. Bill Denny (R-Jackson) entered a motion to reconsider which effectively killed the bill since efforts to table the motion were defeated.
- Medicaid Expansion: Republican leadership continues to oppose medicare expansion. Both the House and the Senate rejected federal funds to expand Medicaid as is allowed under Obamacare (to cover those earning 138% of the federal poverty level).
- Judges, Law Enforcement: Added 16 assistant district attorneys, 50 new Highway Patrol troopers, added funds for the state Crime Lab.
The second story focuses on the budget. According to Harrison, the $2.4 Billion public education budget was an increase of $85 Million over the previous year. The current education budget is $255 Million short of the funding formula based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).
In all, the 2014 $6 Billion general fund budget was an increase of about $200 Million over 2013.
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