New legislative session begins Tuesday

Published 11:28 am Saturday, December 31, 2016

The budget, specifically two major items — infrastructure and funding for education — could be the major issues facing the Mississippi Legislature when it convenes Tuesday in Jackson.

“I think I say it every year, but I think the budget and the financial issues are going to be the major issues of the session,” State Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg, said. “We need to see what our revenue is and how we make sure our tax structure is working properly and how to best spend those dollars.”

“Infrastructure — road and bridges — I think that will certainly be in the discussion.”

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Roads and bridges became a major issue in the 2016 session when the Mississippi Economic Council came out with its Blueprint Mississippi program that examined the state’s aging infrastructure and recommended an investment of an additional $375 million annually is needed to address the most vital road and bridge needs in the state.

Hopson said the Senate in 2016 passed a bill for a gas tax to fund road and bridge work that later died in the House.

“I think whatever comes up for consideration (for infrastructure) in the future is going to have to come from the House.”

State Rep. Oscar Denton, D-Vicksburg, said he wants to see something come out of the session.

“I hope we will do something in roads and bridges,” he said.

State Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, wants to wait and see what happens after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in.

“I think they’ll (the Legislature) try to bring forth some kind of tax on gas, but I think most of us are inclined to watch and see what President-elect Trump has talked about his infrastructure program,” he said.

“That will be something we need to look at and see how that’s going to be structured. I took the tour of the bridges and the roads, and there are a lot of bridges out there we need to address and do stuff to, but we’ll have to wait and see what the president-elect is going to bring on this transportation issue.”

The system for funding education is a mystery as the Legislature heads into session, and some legislators have proposed an overhaul of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which was established to provide equal funding for education in grades K through 12. Since it was passed, MAEP has been fully funded three times.

The Legislature approved a $250,000 contract with EdBuild, a New Jersey-based nonprofit to reevaluate the state’s education formula.

Soon after the firm was hired, the House Management Committee voted to keep the contract secret from the public. The legislative committee adopted a policy in November classifying all contracts entered into by the House Management Committee as confidential with an approved release only to parties the “committee deems necessary for the execution of the contract.”

“Anybody knows as much as we know about that,” Denton said. “I haven’t seen any paperwork on it other than those three meetings they’ve had, so I don’t know what the findings are. I don’t know they came up with at all; I haven’t a clue. They haven’t given me anything.”

“As far as I know, they haven’t issued a report,” Hopson said.

“Honestly, we’ve touched on it, we’ve talked about it, but we have not seen exactly what it is that’s going to be out there for us,” he said. “But rest assured, we will make the vote for the best possible outcome for education. Right now, I can’t tell you what it is, because they’re still in the process of studying it.

“I know what has been said, and we will hope to be voting on doing something, but I can’t tell you right now. It’s because we don’t have the final proposal laid out to it.”

Monsour said he does not believe MAEP is dead, “but I think the MAEP name is dead. I think we’re looking at changing the name; ‘education funding’ is basically what it’s going to be.”

He said over the years, legislators have found things in MAEP that have needed to be corrected and things to improve it.

He did not know when a funding plan would be put in place. No deadline has been set when a report will be released, he said, “But it is the top priority.”

“I’d like to tell you we could wave the magic wand, but I don’t know without looking at that proposal what we’re going to do, but I will do my best to take care of education because it is a key vital role of what we have to do to get jobs here in Mississippi.”

Looking at items they plan to file in this year’s session, the legislators said they are still preparing bills. Denton said he plans to re-file a bill to change the state flag, and a bill requiring elected officials convicted of embezzlement to make full restitution before they can receive their retirement.

Hopson said one bill he plans to file is to eliminate or extend the repealer on the no-call list for landline phones, which is expected to die this year.

“I’ve got a couple of bills, one addressing a public safety issue, but my main goal this session is to keep my hands on the projects that are coming to Vicksburg,” Monsour said, mentioning the South Frontage Road extension to link the east and west sides of the road, money for the expansion at the Vicksburg Campus of Hinds Community College and funding for the proposed waterpark on South Frontage Road by the Outlets at Vicksburg.

He also wants to help the Warren County Port Commission with its hiring of a new director.

“We have to make sure Vicksburg’s got somebody in there, because we cannot miss out on any more projects, any more jobs. My focus is to get more jobs for this is area along with the 5,000 for Continental (Tire).”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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