This year’s session of the Mississippi legislature likely won’t feature many major reforms with an election year looming, but lawmakers will still be busy.

Here are some of the issues that are being discussed for the session that begins Tuesday.

Cigarette tax increase

There will likely be a proposal to increase the state’s per-pack tax on cigarettes from 68 cents to $2.18, a $1.50 increase.

There is a groundswell of support for the proposal, as evidenced by a survey commissioned by a group that includes the Mississippi State Medical Association, the American Heart Association and 30 other organizations.

The survey found 73 percent of Mississippians surveyed would approve of an increase, proceeds of which would go to fund smoking cessation and prevention programs. The national average, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, is $1.78 per pack though it is significantly lower in surrounding states.

An analysis by the Tax Foundation found that if a $1.50 tax increase passed, tax revenue would spike, then fall as it did each time the legislature increased the tax in the past. An increase would also make Mississippi’s cigarette tax higher than surrounding states and revenue would likely shrink even further as smokers in border counties crossed state lines to buy cigarettes.

Last year, a placeholder bill that included code sections that would’ve allowed an increase didn’t make it out of the Ways and Means Committee in the House.

Gasoline tax increase

Dick Hall, the Transportation Commissioner who represents the central part of the state, says that his agency needs a gasoline tax increase.

Hall told WJTV that the revenues coming in from the 18.4 cent per gallon gasoline tax aren’t enough to cover maintaining the state’s highways as the cost of labor and construction materials have increased 600 percent in the 31 years since the tax was last hiked.

Hall told WJTVthe backlog of 691 projects for the Mississippi Department of Transportation adds up to nearly $1 billion, far short of the money provided by the infrastructure package passed this September by the legislature in a two-week special session.

The bill that was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant includes $250 million in borrowing for MDOT projects and redirected 35 percent of use tax revenues to cities and counties.

Criminal justice reform

Bryant said in an op-ed on December 13 that he wants further reforms that build on the ones passed in 2014. Those reforms ended 300 percent growth in the inmate population between 1983 and 2013 by focusing prison space on violent and career criminals. The state’s inmate population was down from 22,497 inmates in 2012 to 21,082 as of December 2018, showing the 2014 reforms are within predicted benefits.

What specific shape reforms could take could be anyone’s guess, but the governor has let it be known that he’s in favor of any reforms that decrease recidivism and enable one-time, non-violent offenders a second chance at becoming law-abiding citizens.

But at the same time, there is an expectation that some will push to re-instate the administrative forfeiture provision in the law that the legislature let lapse last session. Administrative forfeiture allows agents of the state to take property valued under $20,000 and forfeit it by merely providing the individual with a notice. An individual would then have to file a petition in court to appeal.

Rural broadband

There is a push to allow non-profit electric cooperatives to provide high speed broadband service to rural communities. Mississippi Public Service Commission Chairman Brandon Presley, who represents the Northern District, says that broadband is the electricity of the 21st century and is a vital need for rural communities to join in the economy of the future.

Right now, the co-ops aren’t allowed by state law to provide anything more to customers other than electricity. Presley cites Alabama, which allows co-ops to provide broadband service to its customers, as an example to be emulated.

PERS

Lawmakers likely won’t commission any big reforms to the state’s defined benefit pension system for most state, county and municipal employees, but they will have to appropriate more money to fill an increase in the employer (taxpayer) contribution.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s proposed budget asks for $75 million in additional contributions for PERS, while the legislature’s budget proposal has $790 million in unallocated general fund revenue that can be used for several purposes including teacher and state employee pay hikes in addition to the PERS contribution increase.

The board that governs the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi voted in July to increase the employer contribution from 15.75 percent of payroll to 17.4 percent.

Analyses by both the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) and PERS itself show that PERS, which is now 62.5 percent fully funded, according to its own calculation methods and assumptions, wouldn’t reach its goal of 80 percent fully funded by 2042. PEER recommended that PERS increase the contribution rate to fill the financial gap caused by an increasing number of retirees and a decreasing number of contributing employees.

Any increase in employee contribution would have to be done by the legislature and that’s unlikely in an election year.

Campus free speech

The issue of free speech on state-funded community colleges and universities will likely be addressed by the legislature this session. Many colleges and universities nationwide are implementing speech codes regulating student speech.

Since these codes are based on the nebulous concept of physical or emotional distress, they’d likely run afoul of a constitutional challenge. The legislature could address present issues with campus free speech and prevent future administrators from compromising free expression.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE, Jackson State University is the only one of the state’s universities to earn their worst stop rating, red, for a problematic free speech policy that clearly infringes upon protected expression.

Alcorn State University, Delta State University and the University of Southern Mississippi were assessed with yellow ratings by FIRE, which means they restrict a more limited amount of free expression. Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi received green ratings from FIRE. However, a group of students at Ole Miss recently presented the administration with a set of demands, which included the adoption of some form of a “hate speech” policy.

Delta State University’s problematic regulations were recently changed to put the university more in line with state and federal law.

Education Savings Accounts

Last year, a bill that would’ve expanded the state’s education savings account program for children with special needs to most children in the state died on the calendar after clearing the Senate Education committee. While such a sweeping reform might not be doable in an election year, there are some changes to the ESA program that, if enacted, could be extremely beneficial.

The PEER Committee released a report in December that criticized the lottery system that determines which eligible parents receive the ESA, which can be used for private school tuition, therapies, tutoring, textbooks, and other education expenses. They recommended that priority be given to those eligible parents on the waiting list. PEER also recommended that unused ESA funds, which added up to $1,700,529, could be re-appropriated for use in the next fiscal year.

The same PEER report found the program, with roughly 200 families on the waiting list, to be overwhelmingly popular among participants.