Medicaid expansion, campus free speech, regulatory reform, teacher pay raises, and infrastructure spending are some of the issues that the Mississippi legislature will likely tackle in the session that starts today.
Since this session follows an election year, legislators will be in town until May 10, about a month longer than usual.
Last year’s session ended on March 29, nine days before legislators were supposed to leave town.
With a longer session, the deadlines will be pushed back. February 24 is the deadline for bills to be introduced and March 10 is the first deadline for bills to be passed out of committee in the originating chamber.
One of the biggest issues facing the legislature is the possible expansion of Medicaid for able-bodied, working adults up to 138 percent of the poverty level under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Thirty-six states have expanded Medicaid, which has the federal government cover 90 percent of the costs. The other 10 percent.
Any attempt to expand Medicaid will likely face the veto pen of incoming Gov. Tate Reeves, who made stopping expansion one of the primary issues of his campaign.
Incoming Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is open to the idea, but House Speaker Philip Gunn is less supportive.
If Louisiana is any indication, participation and thus costs will far exceed estimates. According to a report by the Louisiana-based Pelican Institute, the state expected 306,000 new enrollees when it expanded Medicaid eligibility, but that number has ballooned to 456,361 according to recent data from the Louisiana Department of Health. That’s an increase of 49.1 percent.
A study by Institutes for Higher Education in 2015 said that it’d cost taxpayers $159.1 million per year by 2025 if 95 percent of the eligible population participated in the expansion (310,039 enrollees).
Campus free speech
As evidenced by events over the past year, work remains on ensuring that the state’s universities and community colleges don’t restrict the free speech rights of students and faculty.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in September on behalf of a former Jones County Junior College student who was stopped several times by campus police and administrators from exercising his free speech rights. Attorneys for the college are seeking dismissal of the case in a filing on December 5.
One of the ways that the legislature could protect the free speech rights of students is enacting legislation that would prevent the creation of restrictive speech codes, keep administrators from disinviting speakers (especially controversial ones), create a series of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who infringes the free speech rights of others, and allow people whose First Amendment rights were curtailed on campus to be compensated for court costs and attorney fees.
A study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University found that the state’s administrative code has 9.3 million words and 117,558 restrictions. To read all of it would take 13 weeks of 40-hour work weeks and some breaks.
This regulatory morass places a heavy burden on businesses to stay in compliance and could be reduced with some common-sense reforms.
One of those would be a law that’d require the state’s regulatory bodies to strike two regulations for every new one that the board or commission seeks to enact.
At the federal level, President Donald Trump’s administration has enacted similar policies starting in 2017 that eliminated $13.5 billion in regulatory costs in fiscal 2019. In fiscal 2020, this could generate savings of $51.6 billion according to government estimates.
Gasoline tax hike
There is also a push for a gasoline tax hike for Mississippi drivers. Right now, they pay 37.19 cents in state and federal taxes on every gallon of gasoline, about 11 cents a gallon less than the national average. The state’s gas tax was last increased in 1987.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation requested $1.1 billion for fiscal 2021. Of that budget request, $559 million is from federal funds, $305 million from the state’s gasoline tax, $161 million from other state taxes and $75 million from state truck and bus taxes and fees.
The Office of State Aid Roads has requested $195,463,799 in from special and federal funds, which helps maintain 25,857.04 miles of county roads that are considered “feeder” routes between the state highways. This money also goes to maintaining 5,368 bridges on these routes
Also possible is a local option gasoline tax that is similar to Florida’s that would allow counties and municipalities to hold referendums on increasing local excise taxes on gasoline by a few cents. This would require a constitutional amendment and is probably unlikely.
Seemingly forgotten is the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act of 2018 that was passed in a special session. The law diverts 35 percent of the state’s use tax revenues by next year to cities and counties to help with infrastructure. It also authorized $300 million in borrowing, with $250 million for the Mississippi Department of Transportation and $50 million for local infrastructure not administered by MDOT.
The infrastructure bill also increased registration fees for owners of hybrid and electric vehicles and is redirecting gaming tax revenue from sports wagering to roads and bridges.
The legislature also created a lottery, the first $80 million in tax revenue annually going to the state highway fund until 2028 and the rest put into the Education Enhancement Fund.
In the first week of sales, the lottery earned of $8,932,200, with $1.9 million going to roads and bridges statewide.
Teacher pay raise
One of the first things that legislators will have to tackle is a deficit appropriation of $18.5 million to cover the $1,500 pay increase for the state’s teachers passed in last year’s session.
Due to problems with an antiquated computer system, the Mississippi Department of Education reported a smaller number of eligible teaching positions than actually existed.
The $1,500 pay hike likely won’t be the only raise teachers receive from the legislature. During the campaign, both Reeves and Hosemann supported increasing teacher pay to the “southeastern average.”
With $100 million in additional revenue available to appropriators, Mississippi teachers could see more in their wallets. Teachers have enjoyed three pay hikes since 2000, beyond their annual step increases.
Mississippi teachers are the lowest paid nationally (average of $44,926 before the increase took effect in July), but when the state’s low cost of living is factored in, their pay ranks 35th, according to analysis of data by North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation.
Using the new raise as a guide, every $1,500 in raises will add up to about $76.9 million annually. An 11.29 percent increase that would bring the average Mississippi teacher’s salary to about $50,000 would cost about $263 million annually.