Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State Board for Community and Junior Colleges Releases Annual Report

Today we received the annual report from the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. This report gives a statewide snapshot of enrollment, revenues, graduation rates and more for the entire statewide system of community and junior colleges. Click here to access the report.

The 2010 Session begins Tuesday, January 5.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

HHS Needs Help with Strings Instruments

Hattiesburg High has asked for help in raising money to provide instruments for needy students. The goal is $2000 to provide violins, violas, cellos and basses for six students currently in the Hattiesburg High strings program. They need to raise this money as soon as possible. Please email me at for information on donating to this important cause. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Night Out Against Crime A Success

This evening, neighborhoods across Hattiesburg hosted block parties for the annual Night Out Against Crime. Nearly 40 neighborhood associations held parties ranging from a half dozen attendees to more than 50. It's a great night and reminds me of what's great about living in the city of Hattiesburg- a kind of community you can't find elsewhere.

A funny quirk about the night is that elected officials try and make the rounds to as many block parties as possible in their district or ward. It can be difficult, because all parties are pretty much held between 6-8 p.m. So you basically fly around town, spend 10-15 minutes at each party and move on to the next. Last year, Councilman Dave Ware took the award for most parties attended, sweeping to 9 neighborhoods in Ward 4 during the two hour period.

This year, as I looked at the map sent to me by the city, I identified 11 parties in District 102 and one additional one right outside the district. So the goal was to make it to 12 in two hours. I started around 5:30, jumping the gun a bit, but there was a strong contingency at St. John's Lutheran Church even then. I then proceeded to make it to the Heritage Apartments, Southern Heights, Highlands, Midway, Anointed Word Ministry, Myrtle-Duane neighborhood, Audubon-Westwood neighborhood, Arcadia-Sunset neighborhood and to the Parkhaven/Kamper-Avenues/Heights-Avenues combined party at Kamper Park. So I hit 10, enough to set the new mark, but 2 short of my goal of 12 (apologies to the Hope Drive neighborhood and the Timberton neighborhood). Even still, it was a great night of visiting with people around the city and a big testament to the work Maxine Coleman does with neighborhoods in the city of Hattiesburg.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Regular Session Ends- No Budget

Well, I suppose there's no graceful way to say it. We closed out the session a few minutes ago as the clock struck midnight, without a budget of course. One conferee walked up the aisle in the final minutes and joked, "We have a deal. We're all going home."

To say that it's been a frustrating experience would be the understatement of the year. Three attempts to extend the session today missed by 7, 4 and 5 votes, respectively. While we all have our own positions, I thought not extending the session was a mistake because that means we'll start at square one in the budgeting process in a special session. Which means we'll repeat going through the steps of House committee, House floor, Senate committee, Senate floor just to get back in conference where we are now. And who knows if we'll have an agreement in principle even when the Governor calls us back?

But in the end, both sides (those for an against extending the session) could probably agree on one thing. Conferees had over two months to get it figured out. Mississippians should be angry. It's a flaw in the legislative process- none of us voted on a single conference report in the last week and a half for the budget, essentially because six folks (nine if you want to throw in the Speaker, Lt. Governor and Governor) couldn't come to an agreement. While I'm all for holding out for things that affect your district (such as taking care of our university, FGH and Wesley, school districts, etc.), in the end, if you can't make a joint decision and stick by it, does anyone really win?

Meanwhile, with its inaction, the legislature continues to spread fear and uncertainty to our schools and hospitals, because no one knows how to make their budgets for next fiscal year.

Stay tuned. I'm sure we'll be back in the next week or so. The big question is- we'll we be in this same position, waiting for a deal to be struck near midnight on June 30 before the fiscal year runs out, all because we can't communicate, make decisions and stick by them?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Southern Miss Wins Atlanta Regional

Congratulations to the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, who just beat Georgia Tech 12-8 to win the Atlanta Regional. They now head to the Super Regional in Gainesville, Florida to take on the Florida Gators.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cigarette Tax Increase Passed

This afternoon, the House approved the conference report on HB 364, a final vote on increasing the cigarette tax. The final cigarette tax increase was 50 cents to a total of 68 cents.

The vote was 102-18. The entire Hattiesburg delegation voted for the conference report.

And...we're back.

This morning a few of us arrived early for the reconvening of the 2009 Regular Session. On the agenda are a final vote on a cigarette tax increase, voting on the final FY 2010 budget and eminent domain. It's still unclear whether conferees will reach an agreement on a hospital assessment for Medicaid.

This morning, Governor Barbour briefed House and Senate legislators on the his 2010 Modified Budget Recommendation. When we left, the estimated deficit for FY 2010 was $400 million. Over the course of a few weeks, that number crept up to $480 million.

As we have seen from our federal government, budget deficits happen because of spending too much or revenue not coming in as estimated. Mississippi's Constitution forbids the state to carry any sort of deficit, hence Governor Barbour's budget cuts earlier this year. Because of the bad economy, the Governor's office does not anticipate tax revenues to recover in the next couple of years. Traditionally, Mississippi's economy, as with many other states, is the last to recover from a recession. So the bad news is that the state will have to be frugal for the next few years, which probably is not a bad thing.

To make budget and preserve things like education and public safety, the Governor proposed filling the gap with stimulus money, a cigarette tax (which will probably be passed later this afternoon) and using approximately $90 million of the state's Rainy Day Fund each of the next four years (the fund has approximately $350 million currently). The Governor also made a strong push for the legislature to pass a $90 million hospital tax to provide a more stable funding mechanism for Medicaid. He also pushed for us to set aside some Medicaid funding for the next two years to fund the program in FY 2011, when stimulus dollars run out.

Also, to my surprise, he proposed an additional increase in cigarette taxes for those tobacco companies who were not involved in the tobacco settlement in the 1990's, as well as an increase in smokeless tobacco, in order to sufficiently fund the state's car tag fund for the next few years. Pending today's passage of the cigarette tax increase, the fund will be made whole for this year. Governor Barbour's proposal would ensure that the fund would be full until the state's budget recovers from the recession.

We'll see how these issues shake out over the next 2-3 days. No one knows how long we'll be here, but many of us are hoping for a conclusion by the end of the week.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hattiesburg High Cuts Dropout Rate in Half

Congratulations to Dr. Annie Wimbish and the rest of Hattiesburg Public Schools for cutting their dropout rate by more than half. Hattiesburg’s dropout rate fell from 27.8 percent to 11.2 percent.

While the state’s dropout rate increased, Hattiesburg can be proud of their school system for such a great achievement.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lindsey Smith Releases CD

I'm going to break away from politics for a moment.

If you're looking for something new to listen to, check out Hattiesburg folk and indie rock singer/songwriter Lindsey Smith's new CD on Garage Band and soon on iTunes (make sure you check the spelling of the name when you search).

Lindsey's an incredibly talented piano player and vocalist who I've had the privilege of working with and calling a friend for six years. There's a distinct, natural edge to her voice that will remind you a lot of Norah Jones and Fiona Apple.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Governor Signs Meal Plan Bill

Yesterday, Governor Barbour approved HB 856, which would make all prepaid portions of student meal plans exempt from sales tax. This goes into effect immediately and should provide some relief to students in making their meal plans last longer.

13th Check for Hattiesburg Police/Fire Retirees Heads to Governor

Yesterday, the House and Senate approved HB 1778, which would allow a 13th check to be made to retired Hattiesburg police officers and firemen. The 13th check equates to a cost of living increase.

Councilman Dave Ware pushed this on the local level, and it passed 3-0. It then had to come to the legislature for approval in the form of a Local & Private bill.

No Agreement Yet On Cigarette Tax

Last night, negotiations broke down again between the House and Senate on the cigarette tax. The latest House offer was 75 total cents on the cigarette tax (57-cent increase). The Senate held at 64 total cents (46-cent increase).

Today was suppose to be the day we recessed for a month. However, the lack of a cigarette tax compromise, coupled with the fact that the traditional last-day tomato plants placed on everyone's desk, are not promising signs that today is the last day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Latest on the Budget

We received updated revenue estimates, and it looks like the budget shortfall's final tally will be $301 million. Much of this is offset by the Governor's cuts last year and earlier this spring. The federal stimulus will hopefully make up the rest.

Next year's budget will be a little worse. Currently, it looks as though the current fiscal year 2010 estimate is $402.7 million less than the October estimate. That signals a lot of work to do on the budget before the session ends.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Meal Plan Bill Headed to Governor

The House concurred with the Senate amendments to HB 856. The bill would make prepaid "flex plans" on student meal plans tax exempt.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Meal Plan Bill Clears Senate

HB 856, our bill to restore tax-exempt status to all student meal plans, passed the Senate this morning. The Senate amended the bill to tighten the language restricting tax-exempt status solely to meal plans. The bill will now move back to the House for concurrence or nonconcurrence.

Friday, March 6, 2009

HR 53 Congratulates Hattiesburg on its 125th Anniversary

This morning, the House of Representatives honored the city of Hattiesburg's 125th Anniversary with HR 53.

You can read the resolution by clicking here.

HHS Lady Basketball Advances to 5A State Finals

Yesterday, the Hattiesburg High Lady Tigers beat the Horn Lake Lady Eagles 51-48 to advance to the 5A State Championship game.

I was able to catch the first half of the game while the House had recessed for lunch yesterday, and it was a very exciting game. Hattiesburg High brought a great contingency of fans and supporters.

Congratulations to the Lady Tigers, and best of luck in Saturday's final.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Voter ID Dies in Senate Committee

Voter ID was killed in the Senate Apportionment & Elections Committee earlier today. HB 1533, which would have created mandatory photo voter ID, early voting and registration three days before an election, had potential to put to rest one of the long-standing fights in Mississippi government.

It was a frustrating defeat for something House Republicans and conservative Democrats worked tirelessly to push through the House. We had to take HB 1533 as it was and amend it to include mandatory photo voter ID by piecing together 62 votes (we ended up getting 64 on the amendment and 77 on final passage). Even with our amendments, the bill had its faults, as other amendments were added in a five-hour debate back in February. Individuals born before August 1, 1944 were exempt. The voter registration three days before an election presented big logistical issues for circuit clerks. However- it was photo voter ID, and we pushed it through the House.

While I understand wanting a bill to be perfect, no bill ever will be. The common sense thing would have been for the Senate committee to send the bill to the floor, have the full Senate to have vote on it (and hopefully pass it) and send it to the Governor for approval. If this had been done, Mississippi would have had voter ID by July 1, 2009.

Now, we'll have to wait for Mississippians for Voter ID to gather enough signatures to the put the measure on the ballot as a proposed Constitutional amendment in November 2010.

Homestead Exemption Bill Dies in Committee

SB 2300, which would have raised the Homestead Exemption amount from $75,000 to $100,000 for individuals 65 or older, as well those individuals who are disabled, died in committee. It was not brought up for a vote.

The Need for Transparency

Alabama announced last Friday that it would develop a Web site for its citizens to track how their state's share of stimulus money is spent. The Web site's URL is Individuals and groups will also be able to electronically submit project proposals for the stimulus money.

Whether folks agreed or disagreed on the stimulus package, I think a universal point of agreement is the need for complete transparency on where money is going. Citizens and organizations need accurate information on how to submit for projects. Projects need to go out for bid, with contractors and small businesses having a level playing field when bidding for these projects.

Mississippi needs its own Web site to track stimulus dollars. People should be able to see how money was spent, which projects are out for bid and who was awarded those bids. This will ensure maximum transparency and accountability for such a massive sum of money.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Homestead Exemption Bill Faces Deadline

SB 2300, which would raise the homestead exemption from $75,000 to $100,000 for those individuals who are 65 or older or disabled, faces a crucial committee deadline tomorrow. The bill is currently in the Ways & Means Committee. The committee has until 8 p.m. tomorrow to pass the bill as it is or amend it and pass it out so that it will at least make the House calendar. That would give it a shot of being passed and going to conference committee.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Stimulus Update

As I posted on this week's newsletter, here's a broad breakdown of how Mississippi's portion of the stimulus package will be distributed.

$87 million to support critical government services, aside from those funds dedicated to other needs (education, infrastructure, etc.)

Mississippi will receive education dollars at the state and local levels.

Title I Grants - $132M
Education Technology State Grants - $8.5M
IDEA Part B Grants to States - $117M
IDEA Part B Preschool Grants - $4.5M
IDEA Part C Grants for Infants and Families - $4.3M
Federal Pell Grants - $392M
Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants - $7.2M
Independent Living State Grants - $242K
Services for Blind Elderly - $331K
Federal Work Study - $2.3M
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for Education - $392M - this portion may be used to stabilize MAEP for this fiscal year, as well as the 2010 and 2011 fiscal year.

Mississippi will receive a 6.2% increase in its reimbursement rate, which will save Mississippi's Medicaid program up to $474M.
Mississippi will also receive an estimated savings of up to $108M for other health-related agencies, such as UMC, the State Health Department, the Department of Mental Health and Rehab Services.

Workforce, Unemployment and Job Training
Recipients will receive an additional $25 per week in unemployment benefits.
Recipients will receive benefits for an additional 33 weeks.
Recipients will receive a tax savings on their unemployment compensation for up the $2,400.
The state will receive an additional $3.2 million to bolster employment service training.
The state will receive a share of $575 million for trade adjustment assistance dollars to benefit struggling domestic industries.
The state will receive more money for job training, Job Corps and youth programs.

Highways and Bridges
Mississippi will receive a total of $350M.

$240M of this can be used by MDOT for highways and bridges.
$10.5M will be used for transportation enhancement projects, such as welcome centers, interstate rest stops, etc.
$100M will be designated for local projects in cities and counties.
$34M will be used for transit projects.

$35.5M will go to the Mississippi Development Authority's Energy Division. It's uncertain on where the money will be used, but it will probably provide for some sort of financial incentives to adopt alternative energy.
$51.7M will go to MDA for "weatherization." We're still learning about what this will be used for.

Water, Sewer and Environmental
$35M for sewer systems through the state's revolving loan fund.
$17M for water systems through the state's revolving loan fund.
$200M for repairing leaking underground storage tanks.
$1.7M for diesel emissions reductions. This will be used to put catalytic converters on school buses.

Law Enforcement
Mississippi will receive $18.5M for additional resources to prevent and fight crime.

Housing and Economic Development
HOME Investment Partnership - $18M to fill financing gaps in low-income housing tax credit projects.
Homelessness Prevention Fund - $13M for three years for short-term rental assistance.
Community Development Block Grants - $8.3M more for state and local governments.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meal Plan Bill Passes House 119-2

HB 856 passed the House yesterday 119-2. This bill, which I authored, would assist the students at all Mississippi universities and senior colleges with their meal plans. It would make their "flex plans", also known as declining balance accounts, exempt from sales tax.

Prior to October 1, these flex plans were exempt. The Mississippi State Tax Commission issued a ruling last year that universities and colleges would have to start taxing these portions of student meal plans.

When the bill was brought before the Ways & Means Committee, Chairman Percy Watson (D-Hattiesburg) allowed me to present the legislation, even though I was not a member of the committee. The vote was an 8-8 tie; Chairman Watson then broke the tie by voting for it. The bill went to the full House floor yesterday and passed 119-2.

There are several folks students should definitely thank if this bill becomes law. Chairman Watson would be the first; Representative Angela Cockerham (D-Amite County) would be the second- she presented the bill on the House floor yesterday. Representatives Mark Formby (R-Picayune) and John Moore (R-Brandon) were also very pivotal. On the voice in committee yesterday, it appeared the "nays" were in the majority. Both of them called for a roll call vote, which indicated the tie- which then gave Chairman Watson the opportunity to break that tie.

The bill will now head to the Senate Finance Committee.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Deadline For Floor Action Passes

Last night just before 9 p.m., the deadline passed for floor action on bills.

Because of the long voter ID debate on Wednesday, most everyone's bill moved to Thursday's calendar, which had many people, including myself, sweating on whether our legislation would have a chance to come up for a vote.

However, this proved to be an unexpected blessing. Because everyone had been then there so long, many members did not pick apart the minutiae of every bill. They listened for the high points, asked questions if there were any real concerns and let it go to the board for a vote. Because of that, four bills that I handled on the floor were spared being overly interrogated.

One trick I learned last year was to read all the bills on the calendar several days ahead of time. When you do that, you can mark how you want to vote on your calendar, leaving notes for yourself on questions you want to ask or putting question marks by bills you're not sure about. This also helps you when you are having to prep on bills you're presenting while debate on other bills is going on.

I was glad to see two bills finally clear the docket and move to the Senate. One was the Human Embryo Adoption Act (HB 561) that passed after only a few questions from the floor. The bill's author, Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton) and I had poured through court cases in other states, run the bill by a few members for "grilling in advance" (thanks Angela) and had done hours of research to anticipate any possible question we might not be able to answer.

The other bill was the Athletic Trainer Bill (HB 640) that I was assigned in committee. It was one of those bills where several groups were initially opposed to, and the object was to try and take a bill and mold it to where everyone was happy. While not everyone completely got what they wanted, it was enough to get the bill through the House.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Deadline Week

When I try to describe the experience of being in the Mississippi House of Representatives to someone, I often try to describe things like "Deadline Week." All House bills have to be acted upon by tomorrow night at 8 p.m., or they will be essentially "dead."

Often, people are so passionate and emotional about certain issues that it causes extended debate, multiple amendment offerings and seldom-used procedural moves to get one's way. This was seen today in two counts.

First, the voter ID debate carried on for five hours. Five hours. And because this issue has been debated for over ten years, I doubt anyone changed their mind from the moment they walked in the House chamber at 10 a.m. until we finally took a vote on final passage at 3 p.m. However- everyone has the right to speak on a bill, and most did.

Secondly, when we returned from lunch, one representative was upset at how a bill from his/her committee fell on the calendar, and a seldom-used tactic of having the clerk read the bill from start to finish was employed to prove a point. In the year that I've been here, I've never seen a request for the clerk to read a whole bill. That's the responsibility of the individual representatives. However- when someone wants to delay a proceeding, or simply prove a point, the maneuver definitely gets everyone's attention. Especially when the bill is 35 pages long, like one we handled tonight. However, after reading five bills, the representative must have gotten his/her point across, because they finally stopped making the request.

So, since we adjourned at 7:30 tonight, for 9 1/2 hours of working (minus the 1 1/2 hour we had for lunch from 3-4:30 p.m.), we handled a grand total of 10 bills- which leaves 60 for us to work on before tomorrow's 8 p.m. deadline. Obviously, we won't get to all of these, and many of them will die.

Voter ID Passes the House

It's officially snowing.

Voter ID finally passed the House today. After a five-hour debate (literally, we were in the House chamber from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), the final vote passed 77-44.

What began as a problematic bill including same-day voter registration, weak voter ID and multi-site early voting came out as a mandatory voter ID, voter registration deadlines moved up to 3 days before the election and an age exemption for those born before August 1, 1944.

Here's a recap of how it went down:

Called up the bill

Motion to previous question – would have cut off debate so amendments could not be offered; failed 58-62

Amendment 1 – passed

Motion to previous question – would have cut off debate so amendments could not be offered; failed 55-65

Amendment 2 – struck all House committee language and inserted comprehensive voter ID language

Amendment 1 to Amendment 2 – would have reinstated motor voter, but made the
bill a 3/5 vote; failed; 55-65
Amendment 2 to Amendment 2 – would take out photo ID; failed 50-70
Amendment 3 to Amendment 2 – would provide age exemption for those born
before August 1, 1944; passed 63-57

Amendment 2 passed 62-58

Amendment 3 – would have prohibited candidates from using campaign money for personal use; ruled not germaine

Amendment 4 – would restore suffrage rights in circuit court to nonviolent offenders; passed 72-48

Amendment 5 – would let people register three days before an election 65-55

Final Passage – passed 77-44

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Soup Saturdays at Cafe Boheme

If you're looking for a lunch spot, especially on Saturday, I highly recommend Cafe Boheme in midtown Hattiesburg. Every Saturday, Paul McCall and the crew fix up some of the best soup you've ever tasted. Kate and I tried it today, and it was nothing short of amazing.

Each Saturday showcases a completely different soup. It's served Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. at Cafe Boheme. Cafe Boheme is located at 1605 Hardy Street between Moore's Bike Shop and Simmons Furniture. Support your local business, and check it out one weekend.

Friday, February 6, 2009

HC 33 Would Amend Constitution To Protect Property Rights

This morning, HC 33 passed the House. HC 33 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to restrict the use of eminent domain. The amendment would prohibit the use of of eminent domain from private economic development projects.

This initiative arose out of the United States Supreme Court Kelo decision dealing with taking private property for someone else's private development in New London, Connecticut. Since this decision was made, many states have been moving to protect the private property rights of their citizens.

Owning property is one of the most fundamental rights established at the beginning of this nation. Protecting a person's right to keep what he or she owns is a worthy pursuit.

HB 680 Would Assist Smaller Non-Profits

HB 680 was passed by the House yesterday. It would raise the reporting threshold for reporting contributions to the Secretary of State. The current threshold is $4,000- this bill would raise it to $25,000. It would also revise the date of when annual reports had to be filed.

This would bring Mississippi's laws governing non-profit, 501 C-3-designated organizations in line with federal laws.

For many of Mississippi's smaller non-profits, this w help with operating costs. Smaller "mom and pop" non-profits will avoid added expense of attorney and accountant services associated with filing these reports.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act Clears Committee

HB 561, also known as the Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act, cleared the Public Health Committee unanimously this morning. The bill is sponsored by one of classmates, Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton). I had the privilege of handling it in committee and look forward to handling it on the House floor sometime next week.

The Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act provides much-needed legal clarity when it comes to the rights of human embryos, genetic parents and adopted parents.

In a basic explanation, when a couple of undergoes the In vitro fertilization process, several embryos may be left over. The parents have the opportunity to "freeze" these embryos in order to store them, in case they choose to try and have children again in the future.

HB 561 would provide legal protection for those parents who want to give these embryos up for adoption by other couples who cannot have their own children. It brings donated embryos under the adoption laws and protection as children who have already been born. It also specifies the exact moment when the parental rights of genetic parents are relinquished and the rights of adopted parents begin.

SnowFlakes, an adoption agency in California, has really championed the cause of human embryo adoption. To get more information, click here to go to their Web site.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Senate Passes Out Cigarette Tax Increase

Today, the Senate passed out a 31-cent cigarette tax increase by a vote of 42-7. This would bring Mississippi's total cigarette tax to 49 cents. I was able to catch some of the Senate debate during lunch. One amendment hotly debated was to increase the cigarette tax to $1 per pack, like the House version allowed for. That amendment failed by 4 votes.

The Senate bill included a provision to cap car tag fees with some of the cigarette tax revenue. I think this provision was added by a few senators who can now technically say they voted for a "tax swap" instead of an outright "tax increase."

The bill will now go to conference committee between the House and Senate. The House's version calls for an 82-cent increase, and the Senate's version calls for a 31-cent increase. The likely total tax will land in the middle, somewhere between 50-70 cents total. Because both sides seem to want this increase to go into effect March 1 (so we can earn some revenue this fiscal year, which ends June 30), conference committee for the bill will probably get underway early next week.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House Approves $68M Deficit Appropriation

On Wednesday, the House leadership rolled out and passed HB 1383 by a vote of 82-37, which would seek to make a deficit appropriation for K-12 education to offset Governor Barbour's cuts that were announced last week.

A "deficit appropriation" is one that seeks to provide bridge money to the end of the current fiscal year with the assumption that enough revenue will come into the state's coffers by year's end to cover the appropriation.

HB 1383's premise was to appropriate $68M, which would cover most of the Governor's budget cut. The number of $68M came from the House's revenue estimate of $68M for cigarette tax revenue for the rest of this fiscal year, assuming- a) the Senate passed the House's 82-cent cigarette tax increase, and b) if it all gets done by March 1.

However, the only problem with the legislation is that neither of the above scenarios will likely happen. The Senate is not going to 'ok' an 82-cent cigarette tax increase. A more probable outcome would be that the Senate would pass out something like a 24-cent increase, with the bill going to conference and the final cigarette tax ending up around 60-70 cents. So while I completely agree that we should divert as much money as possible to assist cash-strapped school districts in the wake of budget cuts, I do not think it wise to appropriate revenue that has not yet been generated.

My analogy for the situation is this. Suppose I'm interviewing for a job that pays a great sum of money. I've interviewed once and feel pretty good about my prospects. And even though I have two more interviews left to go, I go off and buy a mansion using the "money" that I think I will make if I get that job.

HB 1383, while a noble gesture, probably gives many school districts a great deal of false hope- because the money will not be there in the end. Two smarter options would have been to a) appropriate a smaller, lump-sum amount to K-12, such as $30M, which new cigarette tax revenues could cover; or b) make an appropriation that will "make whole" those few districts who will have negative balances at the end of the fiscal year.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Armed Forces Museum Reception

Last night, I drove back to Hattiesburg to attend the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum's reception and ceremony to honor those individuals who have contributed stories and artifacts to the museum. If you've never visited the Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby, I greatly recommend it. Besides having stirring stories of heroism from Mississippians involved in defending America, there is an impressive collection of war memorabilia dating back to the War of 1812. The exhibits are also top-notch, with many audio and visual effects you might expect only in larger markets.

I also met Vera Anderson McDonald, who during World War II, won the National Women's Welding Champion the first two years it was held. She served as the inspiration for the "Rosie the Riveter" posters. Actually, it was the second time I had met her- the first was going door-to-door in her neighborhood during the 2007 campaign. Her actual trophy from the 40s is on display at the museum.

It was also an honor to meet Mr. George Robert Hall, who was a Vietnam POW for 7 1/2 years. He was captured in 1965 and released in 1973. We actually had a few things in common. His father, Stanton A. Hall, held the same House seat that I now hold. His father went on to serve as a state senator and judge. An even great coincidence was that Mr. Hall was born in the same house on South 21st Avenue that Kate and I now reside.

If you haven't visited the Armed Forces Museum, again, I strongly recommend it. Take Highway 49 South to Camp Shelby, entering at the north gate.

Cigarette Tax Passes House

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed HB 364, which allowed for a cigarette tax increase of 82 cents. If the House plan makes it through the Senate, the state's total cigarette tax would be $1 per pack. HB 364 passed 81-39.

Two amendments failed in the process. The first amendment, presented by Representative Bobby Howell (R-Kilmichael), would have trimmed the increase to 42 cents. It failed 56-65. Representative Greg Snowden (R-Meridian) brings up a good point in his blog (click here to read Snowden's entry on HB 364). Snowden notes that the amendment was, in the end, defeated by six Republicans, who ended up not voting for the final bill. Their principled opposition to any tax increase is admirable; however, it's ironic that by voting against the amendment, they ended up raising the cigarette tax increase by 40 cents.

However, the final cigarette tax increase will likely not be anywhere near $1 per pack. The Senate is likely to pass out a 24-cent increase to a total of 42 cents. The bill will then go to conference, with the final total cigarette tax landing around 50-68 cents.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Governor Gives State of the State

Last night, Governor Barbour gave his annual State of the State Address. While any executive's (mayor, governor or President) "State of the..." address tends to include a laundry list of accomplishments and new initiatives, last night's address was a sobering reminder of the challenges we face. The Governor touched on the latest estimate on FY09's budget shortfall ($175-$315 million), challenged us to make the Rainy Day fund last for four years and gave the expected, but unfortunate news that K-12 education would be cut for this fiscal year.

However, it also turns out that many school districts had been putting aside their own "rainy day fund" in the event of such a budget downturn. The combined amount for Mississippi's school districts is over $500 million, significantly higher than the amount in the entire state's own Rainy Day Fund. How this will shake out for Mississippi's school districts remains to be seen. From what I've heard, the budget cut for K-12 will be under $100 million, which is less than the 5% cut we might have expected.

The Governor closed his speech by calling for several reforms to make state government more effective and efficient. He called for a study to look into privatizing Mississippi driver's license stations, as well as the ABC. He called for a new charter school law and for the House to consider a health insurance exchange for small businesses. These are reforms that are overdue in getting a fair shake from the legislature.

In the end, while getting the bad news, the Governor continued to look forward in setting a vision that could still move the state forward. Perhaps one of Governor Barbour's greatest leadership traits is the way he brings people together in times of uncertainty and calamity. I've noticed that even the staunchest of Democrats respect the man for his fiscal discipline and prudent approach during this economic downturn. To his own credit, Governor Barbour himself has also given a little on hiking the cigarette tax.

If both sides can actually talk and cooperate this session (at least on some things), we'll be able to navigate around the obstacles and still make progress. However, I admit I've had more coffee than normal this morning and am feeling unusually optimistic. We'll just see how it plays out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cigarette Tax First Major House Issue

Yesterday, the House Ways & Means Committee passed out H.B. 364 by a vote of 13-11. This bill would increase the tax on cigarettes by 82 cents per pack for a total of $1.00 per pack. The House was expected to vote on the bill this morning, but it was put off until next week, probably because there were questions on whether enough votes were there to accomplish the required 3/5 margin.

The House will likely debate and vote on the issue early next week. Several amendments are likely to be offered. The only item of contention for House members is the exact amount of the increase; some are advocating for an increase of 82 cents per pack like H.B. 364 proposes. Others, especially those living in counties bordering neighboring states, are pressing for a more moderate increase of 42-50 cents per pack.

However, it's quite clear a cigarette tax will happen this year. With massive budget shortfalls, the cigarette tax is seen as an attempt to plug funding holes for such items as education and Medicaid. An additional possibility is that a cigarette tax increase could have an early "effective date," which would mean the increase would go into law well before the usual July 1 date of new laws.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The First Day, Part II

Today, we gaveled in at noon for the first day of the 2009 legislative session. It was a significant event (in our world at least) because the first day occurred at the newly renovated Old Capitol Building. The Old Capitol was the seat of state government from 1839 to 1903. Each house of the legislature held its session in its respective chamber from 1839.

As I sat there with Rep. Tad Campbell (R-Meridian), we noticed stark differences in the mood of House members. Some were in quite the festive spirit, taking pictures and cajoling with members they hadn't seen in several months. There's nothing particularly wrong with this scene- while starting the first session, we were also celebrating the reopening of one of the more historic and beautiful buildings in the whole state. It's something we should recognize.

However, there was another mood in the old House chambers, of which Tad and I were part of, that was definitely of a more somber mindset- realizing that we're facing some daunting challenges during the 2009 session.

The reality is quite clear that our state budget has come in well below projections. The latest from the Governor is that we may come in $170-$230 million below projection. But for the people and businesses we represent, it's worse. Indeed, hard decisions will have to be made during this session.

But I believe we'll pull through if we keep a few things in mind. First of all, we have to remember our priorities and remember the things we campaigned on. Secondly, we have to keep an even keel and make realistic, common sense decisions. Finally, we have to realize that playing this "my way or the highway" game won't cut it this time. We don't have the time or money to get into foxholes on issues and refuse to talk to the other side. We don't need three or four special sessions. We have 90 days to work out the budget, cigarette tax, education and Medicaid. Let's get to work and get it done- on time.