Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Chess Game

Maybe it was because it was Deadline Day in the House for general bills. Maybe it was because we had spent every day this week in the Chambers debating and questioning every detail in some of the simplest legislation. Maybe it was because it was the last day, and we could draw our line in the sand.

Each faction (whether organized or not; some were not based on party or region, just a few folks who found a common cause together) seemed ready to get their individual shot in today. Bills were killed with procedural rules. Random amendments were brought up to revive them. Objections were raised and then withdrawn. Lots of parliamentary inquiries were made. Shouting (in the form of "aye" and "no") filled the air. The gavel had to have been pounded a couple of hundred times.

If you were an objective, outside observer, these scenes might take you back to elementary school when different groups competed for rule of the playground.

It was at times severely frustrating to see certain bills (some good- such as one that would have helped districts take better care of kids with asthma, or one that would have studied the long-term possibility of state-supported pre-K in Mississippi) bite the dust on procedural votes. However, there were a few bad bills that were defeated in the same manner, some of which I helped go down in a fiery inferno.

Before I took office, people told me the making of laws closely resembled the making of sausage- you may enjoy the final outcome, but the process is one of the uglier scenes you'll ever endure. This week of handling general House bills definitely affirmed the argument.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Public Records Bills Pass

HB 474 passed this morning 114-3 to provide some much-needed clarification to laws concerning the public's access to public records. It gives the public access to incident and investigative reports and puts teeth to the law.

HB 993 passed yesterday by a margin of 120-0. This requires the Attorney General's office to disclose more information about its contracts with outside counsel.

It appears quite fashionable this year to support sunshine legislation. If these laws are enforced, it should allow for the public to have real conversations about the workings of their government.

The Problem with the 85% Reduction

On Monday, House Bill 729 was passed. Before the bill was called up, I had received weeks of emails and phone calls supporting reducing the 85% rule to 25% on nonviolent offenders in state prisons. The misconception was that this bill would reduce the sentences of only first-time offenders of minor crimes and drug convictions. I was prepared to support it, because this would give people who had made stupid mistakes a second chance; it would also allow the state to save millions of dollars in correction costs.

However, this was not the case. The bill does not apply simply to first-time offenders. A person would be ineligible only if:

1. If the prisoner was convicted as a habitual offender.
2. Prisoners convicted of sex crimes.
3. Those convicted of violent crimes and certain drug and theft crimes.

The problem is that "habitual offender", as referenced in number one, would only apply if the prisoner had been convicted three times in Mississippi. This does not take into count if the person had been convicted in some other state.

However, I would have supported the bill if the 85% reduction had only applied to first-time offenders.

I introduced this amendment, and it failed 57-63. So, basically, you could be a multi-time offender and still only be required to serve 25% of your sentence.

It was disappointing that the rest of the House wouldn't limit this reduction of the 85% rule to first-time offenders. The bill ended up passing in its original form, 69-52.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cigarette Tax

Yesterday, the House voted 74-42 to raise the state's cigarette tax by $1 to $1.18.

I voted for it. I was one of five Republicans who did.

I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. There's a Medicaid shortfall. We know this, and $169 million is the House's magic number to avoid cutting services. There are two options being touted (though there are probably many more that haven't been thought of yet). One is to raise the cigarette tax. One is to institute a gross revenue assessment on Mississippi's hospitals.

Both sides have valid points. The cigarette tax is too low. A large portion of our Medicaid costs come from tobacco-related illnesses. For me, it's a matter of personal responsibility. If a person is doing damage to themselves by smoking, and the taxpayers of this state will one day have to pick up the tab for taking care of them, there's no reason why they can't place a small down payment on this health care every time they buy a pack of cigarettes.

The Governor also has a point. Back in the mid-90s, the Mississippi Hospital Association did advocate taking a part of the public hospitals' revenue for a Medicaid match. They upped their giving earlier this decade. Now, the plan is to spread that contribution out over ALL of the hospitals, public and private. The private hospitals have a problem with it, and it's easy to understand why. The small, rural hospitals have a problem with it, and it's easy to understand why.

When I ran for this office, I never campaigned on a particular "tax swap". I advocated raising the cigarette tax by $1. I signed a pledge during the early months of my campaign. It was risky, but for me, it was the common sense thing to do. I would love for the people of this state to get some tax relief, whether it be groceries, a break on their car tags, giving more room on the homestead exemption for seniors, or an earned income tax credit for our working poor. It would be great, but it won't happen this session. I also said, during the last week of the campaign (and I was quoted in the HA), as saying that Medicaid appeared to have a shortfall, and might have to raise the cigarette tax just to cover it. On a rare occasion, this prediction proved correct.

Will a $1 cigarette tax increase help pay for Medicaid? Yes. Do I believe it's really going to raise $174 million and be a sustainable funding source for Medicaid? Not a chance. We can look at Tennessee and see that the hope of $174 million annually just won't work. I also believe some people will actually cut down on their smoking due to this increase, and that means cigarette tax revenue will be a declining revenue stream. So even if it does hit $174 million, it won't keep us afloat forever.

It's also safe to say the bill is dead as soon as it gets to the Senate. However, I believe by the House voting on it, it draws each Chambers' line in the sand and gets the parties working towards a compromise.

To cover the rest of Medicaid, I do believe we'll have to institute some sort of gross revenue assessment. But I don't believe in taxing the hospitals as much as the Governor is proposing. I would be okay with a much smaller assessment, balanced among private and public hospitals; and an assessment that would exempt small, rural hospitals. I sympathize greatly with people like Rep. Becky Currie, whose small hospitals, which are the main economic development engines in these rural areas, would be harmed by having to carry the burden of an assessment.

In the end, I believe this balanced compromise will happen. The cigarette tax will get us 60-85% of the way there, depending on how much the final increase is (and I do believe there will be an increase), and a small assessment will do the rest. But that's just my take on it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MS Taxpayer Transparency Act Passes

This morning, the Mississippi Taxpayer Transparency Act passed the House 118-0. I was actually a little surprised it passed by that margin.

The bill was sponsored by most of my freshman class. It would require the state government to create and operate a website that would make government contracts, subcontracts, grants and bonds accessible to the public.

HB 725 now goes to the Senate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Win/Lose of Deadline Day

Today was deadline day. Since I arrived at the Capitol this morning, I've been going non-stop. While it may consist of just sitting in meetings and asking questions or giving comments, it is nonetheless mentally and emotionally taxing.

Today, the Mississippi Taxpayer Transparency Act passed the Appropriations Committee. This would create a website that would put all state contracts, subcontracts, and grants online, as well as provide information on bond projects and revenues. The Dept. of Finance and Administration would oversee the sight. Over course, their objection is to the work and how much it will cost. Two states most recently (Missouri and Kansas) have done it for no additional cost and using existing staff. This is a big deal. Taxpayers could have instant access to these documents. Transparency allows us to the have conversation about government efficiency and spending. I'm pleased that most of my freshman class has also sponsored the bill.

However, I also suffered a setback today. HB 1365, which is an identical bill of my HB 774, would grant exemptions to school-mandated vaccinations for children who have a certificate from a doctor that states such vaccination would be injurious to the well-being of the child.

HB 1365 was stripped down to an appeal process for children with autism to try and get exempt from school-mandated vaccinations. The new stripped-down version of HB 1365 passed the Public Health Committee 15-5, but then failed in the Education Committee 11-10. I can't even begin to state the outpouring of emails, phone calls and letters of stories of parents whose child has been injured by a vaccination. Mississippi is one of two states who do not allow for a religious exemption. 48 states allow this. 20 allow for a philosophical exemption. And there are children who have suddenly been injured after receiving a vaccination, or have been diagnosed with autism shortly after vaccination, whereas before they were perfectly normal. I don't know the specifics of the science. No one does. But there is no doubt there is a correlation for some children. Obviously, the State Medical Association, Dr. Ed Thompson and other pharmaceutical companies vehemently oppose my position- and that's fine. I represent parents in my district whose children have been injured, and honestly, I believe they are right. I think we will be proved correct in the future.

The whole argument that opening the door for these few hundred children with autism could result in some sort of outbreak is ridiculous. Tell that to the other 48 states with exemptions for religious beliefs. I haven't heard of any new outbreaks of measles or diphtheria. And Mississippi cannot get a doctor-approved exemption for children with autism. The other argument was that Mississippi is leading the nation in terms of immunizations. Well, guess what- we also lead the nation in child mortality. So our wonderful immunization success rate isn't curing the real issue after all.

In the end, I was grateful to have bipartisan support in the Education Committee, especially from Reps. Sherra Hillman Lane, Bob Evans and Brandon Jones.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Pay Raise

So the House voted 62-59 for the payraise. You probably heard 61-60, but one of the representatives said afterwards that his vote wasn't counted correctly, so that made the margin 62-59.

I voted against it. In lean budget times, the bottom line is we have to cut spending. I always said my priorities for this year were education (MAEP, teacher payraise, etc.), solving the Medicaid issue and ensuring stability for the trauma network; and more locally, getting us a second circuit judge and securing pass through funding for the ADEPT dropout recovery school.

I will vote to spend money on things like these. But we can't pile on appropriations as if the situation we find ourselves in does not exist. There will be more times in the next few weeks where I'll find myself voting against good things. However, I have to believe one of the greatest responsibilities we have is to remember we don't spend anything that we haven't first taken from the taxpayers. Anyway, just my thoughts.

Monday, February 11, 2008

First Time in the Well

Today I handled my first bill on the House floor. House Bill 839, which extends the repealer on allowing hairbraiders to practice with just a registration passed today. Mississippi is staying open for hairbraiding business. After two questions from the floor, the bill passed.

Actually, there are 310 registered hairbraiders in the state. The registration is good because it allows for the legal practice of hairbraiding, which creates yet another skill and job opportunity in a segment of the population that has higher rates of poverty. So, you could say the legislature, through this act, created 310 new jobs in the past year and didn't have to give a single tax incentive.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

House Votes to Fund MAEP, Teacher Pay Raise, Other Reforms

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to fund MAEP and other educational programs. The kicker was a 3% raise for K-12 teachers and what comes out to be around a 4% raise for teacher assistants.

It was a contentious debate with two differing viewpoints on the subject of the teacher pay raise. The question was not whether teachers deserve a pay raise; the dividing point was whether we should approve a 3% raise now before we have a handle on how other programs will be funded. One school of thought was the idea that the House should wait to see how revenues come in before allocating money to a 3% raise that will cost the state around $60 million annually. With the Medicaid funding crisis looming, this side thought waiting to see how other funding problems shake out would the responsible thing to do. It was a valid point.

However, the other side of the coin was the perspective that by voting on it now, the House would be proactive in setting its priorities. A line would be drawn in the sand to state that above all else, we would continue to make a further investment in our human capital. This is the viewpoint I held, and thus, I voted for the pay raise and the entire education appropriation.

I believe education is the priority for Hattiesburg, South Mississippi and the entire state. I did not run on merely funding MAEP. I campaigned on turning our educational pursuits toward excellence, not simply adequacy. I campaigned on vocational training, early childhood education and paying our teachers what they're worth. I campaigned on continuing state support of the DuBard School. All of these were funded with Thursday's House bill, and that's why I voted for it.