Local governments looking for relief from Legislature

Published 12:03 am Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vicksburg and Warren County governments will concentrate less on asking for money from the state Legislature and more on getting relief when lawmakers return to the Capitol Tuesday.

“It’ll be more about relief from proposed unfunded mandates,” Board of Supervisors President Richard George said. “Hopefully, they will protect us from that.”

Legislators are returning for Gov. Haley Barbour’s last year in office knowing the state’s recommended $5.4 billion spending plan will mean the rainy day fund and health care trust funds will have to be plundered to fill in budget gaps.

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In turn, local governments will feel the effects when seeking state funding, such as sales taxes collected by cities and reimbursements to counties on property taxes lowered by homestead exemption.

Resigned to a mostly stale economy for now, local officials hope for smaller pills to swallow from the state in 2011 — an election year at the state and county levels.

Sales tax collections in Vicksburg fell about 2.9 percent in 2009-10, to $7.2 million from $7.4 million. Statewide, reimbursements for tax revenue lost when people file for homestead exemption have fallen by $9 million following several cuts since 2008.

Instead of money issues, permission may be sought from legislators to build a jail anywhere in Warren County once supervisors settle on a site and funding and changes to the school board election calendar.

State law governing property and facilities indicates real estate bought for such buildings as jails, fire stations and courthouses be located within county seats. A bill was passed during last year’s special session giving DeSoto County permission to build one regardless of municipal lines, a move that could be duplicated to help further the cause of a new jail here.

“I suspect we’ll ask for it,” George said. “The jail issue has not (decreased) in importance. It’s going to be about paying for it.”

Previously mum on a best location, Sheriff Martin Pace said he recommends building a jail as close as possible to the current site at Cherry and Grove streets for security and logistical purposes.

The oldest parts of the jail date to 1905 and lost certification in 2007 to house state prisoners due to its condition.

Mayor Paul Winfield said he supports the idea of a new jail but stopped short of favoring a resolution before the session, saying he had not seen any version of a bill on jail construction. “The jail we have right now is inadequate,” Winfield said. “We’ve got to be concerned for the safety of the jail’s employees and inmates.”

State Reps. George Flaggs and Alex Monsour and state Sen. Briggs Hopson III agreed a joint resolution from the city and county would clench filing a bill this year, likely to come before each chamber’s Local and Private Committee. Those panels also handle bills that allow counties to help fund nonprofit organizations. Spending was to shrink 30 percent in that area locally, according to Warren County’s 2010-11 budget.

A separate issue that will need a local agreement before winning approval in Jackson involves a proposed adjustment in the qualifying deadline to seek seats on the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees.

Candidates currently have two months to qualify and one month to campaign, which forces voting onto paper ballots because state-issued electronic ballot cards arrive while candidates are still qualifying.

In December, Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford voiced support for shortening the filing period. No timetable for approving a resolution has been nailed down, however.

Swinford, in her first year as superintendent, also is seeking full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and special education.

“But, I would settle for just getting what we had this year,” Swinford said. “I do understand it is a time of tough economic conditions, but at the end of the day, it costs me more to educate these children at a time of higher accountability, and I have to do it with less money.”

MAEP is the state’s funding mechanism for local schools. Former VWSD Superintendent Dr. James Price likened estimating the state’s contribution to the program to “aiming at a moving target.”

In recent years, Barbour has made midyear cuts to MAEP funds because of falling revenues, prompting the use of federal stimulus funds to shore up the difference during the 2009-10 school year. The school district’s 2010-11 budget anticipated the state would cut local eduction funding by 15 percent.

Secondarily, Swinford said police and sheriff’s budgets need to be maintained to ensure public safety that directly affects the schools.

“Ninety-seven percent of fights that take place on our campuses originate in the community,” she said.

Law enforcement matters desired by sheriffs and police chiefs typically stay true to lists compiled by their respective professional organizations. In the courts, continued funding of a third district attorney position for the Ninth Circuit Court District is expected to come from a federal anti-crime grant. District Attorney Ricky Smith, preparing for trials this week which kick off a schedule packed with two Warren County grand juries and other proceedings in 14 of the next 18 weeks, said the district could use one more full-time assistant to keep up with a caseload that equaled about 750 in 2010, up from about 660 cases in 2009. Currently, funding for assistant DAs is determined mainly by population.

Other issues Vicksburg’s delegation plans to tackle this year include limits to fees charged by the payday lending business, electoral procedures for statewide races and data from 2010 census data due to states in February.

Flaggs, 57, took office in 1988 and chairs the House Banking and Financial Services Committee. He’ll hear from both sides of a recent push from anti-poverty advocates to limit interest rates charged by businesses that offer small, short-term loans to wage earners. Supporters say annual interest of up to 572 percent hurts the poor and want the maximum rate on short-term loans returned to 36 percent — the cap before lawmakers lifted it in 1998. Short-term lenders contend they provide a vital service during a down economy because rates on their most commonly used services are cheaper than overdraft fees charged by banks. The current cap will expire in 2012.

“I’m convinced it needs to be tweaked,” Flaggs said, adding he’ll recommend middle ground on the issue that is “more customer-friendly” but didn’t provide specifics. “But, I don’t think you can put small business out of business with this high unemployment.”

Monsour said he’ll file a bill to create open primaries for statewide offices — much like Louisiana’s so-called “jungle primary” — in which candidates run at the same time, regardless of party affiliation. Like the rest of the nation, Mississippi has closed-party primaries in the months before a general election in November.

“You could have the right to vote for who you want to vote for,” Monsour said. Monsour, 48, is a first-term Republican and won a primary four years ago before defeating two opponents on the general election ballot.

In another re-file, Monsour plans to revive a bill killed last year in committee that would amend the state constitution to effectively prohibit the recent federal health care reform law in Mississippi, one of more than a dozen states already suing over the bill’s constitutionality. Members of at least 40 state legislatures have proposed ways to stop all or part of the sweeping legislation in their respective states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hopson, 45, is also a first-term Republican and is vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, said he will re-file a bill to require a probable-cause hearing before warrants are issued in criminal cases. Administrative cuts in education at the state level, such as purchasing, could be the subject of education-related bills he is mulling, Hopson said.

The qualifying deadline in legislative races was pushed back to June 1 in the event Mississippi district lines must change due to census data. Statewide, the state’s population rose 4.3 percent in 2010 compared to the 2000 head count, to 2.9 million people.

Committee assignments should stay the same through the session, though Hopson said he is being considered to vice-chair the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

In addition to banking, Flaggs holds spots on the Appropriations, Executive Contingent Fund, Fees and Salaries of Public Officers, Gaming, Investigate State Offices, Legislative Budget, Medicaid, Public Health and Human Services committees. Flaggs represents District 55, which covers the municipal limits of Vicksburg.

Monsour sits on the House Juvenile Justice, Judiciary B, Ports, Harbors and Airports, and Transportation committees. Monsour represents District 54, which covers most of nonmunicipal Warren County, Issaquena County and part of Sharkey.

In addition to Judiciary A, Hopson serves on the Judiciary B, Appropriations, Environmental Protection, Conservation and Water, Ports and Marine Resources, Public Health and Welfare, Tourism and Universities and Colleges committees. Hopson represents District 23, which covers Warren, Issaquena and southwest Yazoo County.

District 56 Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, represents parts of three precincts in northeast Warren County. District 85 Rep. Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson, represents parts of four precincts in southeast Warren County.